Meghan Marsh calls fighting for the rights of people with disabilities her purpose.

After volunteering at a Head Start program and then completing an internship at a children’s psychiatric hospital, she developed the desire to “fight systemic problems” that she saw through her work at both agencies.

Marsh, 53, has spent 30 years as a disability rights advocate.

In 2020, she was awarded the Benjamin L. Cardin Public Service Award by the Maryland Carey Law Alumni Board. A certified mediator, she also served as an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland University College Graduate School of Business and Management.

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At Disability Rights Maryland, Marsh has served as an intake specialist, staff attorney, communications manager and, most recently, deputy director. In that position, she did everything from leading grant reporting and quality assurance to supervising efforts to protect the rights of Social Security beneficiaries with disabilities.

Marsh has been the executive director of Disability Rights Maryland since September.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This year is also the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which laid the foundation for the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush.

To mark the month, The Baltimore Banner asked Marsh about her life’s work and about people with disabilities.

Describe a person with disabilities?

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That’s a little bit like asking someone to describe a human being. People with disabilities are anyone you can imagine — any age, race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, religion, height, weight, in any geographic location, at any income level, you name it. Disabilities can be chronic or cyclic, visible or invisible, and may involve a person’s mental or physical health or well-being, development, mobility or senses.

How did the Americans With Disabilities Act break down barriers for people with disabilities?

The Americans With Disabilities Act was radical for its time, but many people who fought for its passage would characterize it as a long overdue recognition of basic rights. It followed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in 1973, the 504 Sit-In of 1977 and ultimately the Capitol Crawl in March 1990, in which people with disabilities demonstrated the literal difficulty of accessing the halls of justice. By recognizing that people with disabilities have fundamental rights, the ADA paved the way for employment opportunities, government services, public accommodations (such as hotels, restaurants, retail stores, movie theaters, sports arenas) and communication services to be accessible to people with disabilities.

What is the biggest fight this community faces in 2023?

Unfortunately, people with disabilities still fight attitudinal barriers every day. Transportation, housing, education, employment and health care services all need to be more available and more accessible to people with disabilities. Imagine a day when a person with a disability doesn’t have to exhaust themselves fighting for access to a place or to a service.

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What is the biggest misconception the public makes about people with disabilities?

The biggest misconception probably surrounds the capabilities of people with disabilities. Society can be parental, treating people with disabilities as incapable, as if they aren’t experts about their own needs or entitled to make their own decisions. It’s remarkable what can be learned when we stop talking and start listening. We should not be talking on behalf of people with disabilities but rather quieting the room and yielding the microphone.

What is the biggest challenge you face with your new job?

There are estimated to be 650,000 people with disabilities in Maryland. There are only about 35 attorneys and advocates at DRM. The biggest and constant challenge is increasing resources to meet the communities’ needs and determining which issues need to be addressed most urgently. We provide representation in cases that can make a systemic impact, where achieving a policy change or making new case law can effectuate a positive outcome not just for the person we are representing but for larger groups of people facing similar barriers.

Is there a state, town or city that leads the nation when working with its population of people with disabilities?

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There are a lot of localities doing great work. Some states claim to have excellent and inclusive education systems, some have very accessible public transit, some have high rates of insured residents with access to health care, some have closed their residential institutions in favor of community-based living arrangements, some have recognized a person’s right to use supported decision-making to avoid guardianship, and some have high employment rates for people with disabilities. Many states are making progress, but we all have a long way to go.

How large is this community in Maryland and nationwide?

Various statistics show anywhere from 13% to 25% of the U.S. population has a disability, and [that there are] anywhere from 40 [million] to 60 million people. Partly because there is not one universal definition of disability, that number is likely higher. In Maryland, we have about 650,000 people with one or more disabilities.

What do you say to parents who have a young child with disabilities?

You don’t have to do this alone. Seek out parent support networks. These services can help supplement your own knowledge and expertise about your child. It really does take a village, and parents should have access to that network of support.

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What can schools do to better serve this community? And what school systems are doing it the best?

Build inclusive education around the principle that children are children first — they are not their disabilities. The rest will flow from there. Recognize their strengths, and use them to encourage growth. Have high expectations. Be good partners with parents. Always consider an equity lens.

The schools and school systems that are doing a good job of educating children with disabilities are the ones with principals and superintendents dedicated to these goals. The most recent report to Congress from the U.S. Department of Special Education Programs shows that Maryland segregates kids with disabilities into separate schools at the fourth-highest rate in the nation. We need to work every day to ensure that children have the opportunity to thrive.

What is the biggest workplace challenge that people with disabilities face in 2023? How can it be addressed?

People with disabilities are unemployed and underemployed at higher rates than peers without disabilities. Many states still legally allow people to be paid less than minimum wage. Also, young people are often steered toward a lifetime of reliance on disability benefits instead of being provided with planning, support and services to prepare for employment.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and this year’s theme is “Advancing Access and Equity.” I encourage everyone to visit the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy website for more information about accessible employment practices and suggestions for making sure all people have equal opportunities.

How does society fully integrate people with disabilities?

When we reach a point where we are all celebrated and valued for our differences, strengths, perspectives and experiences, where we are connected and supported, only then can we start considering whether we have achieved justice and equity.

What are some ways to better educate oneself about disabilities?

We should all strive to be continuous learners with open minds. What we know today may no longer be true tomorrow. What we know about one person may not apply to another. My best advice is to read as much as you can, from as many sources as you can, to understand how many perspectives there are. And then be purposeful and intentional about making one small something more just, more equitable, more available, more accessible.

Do you recommend any books, movies, articles?

A few documentaries come immediately to mind.

“Where’s Molly?” shows the true story of a man in Oregon who spent years searching for his sister who disappeared from his family when she was 3 years old, into an institution for people with developmental disabilities. “Lives Worth Living” traces the history of the disability rights movement prior to the ADA. “Crip Camp” similarly highlights one summer camp from the 1970s that seeded an entire movement toward equality. “Including Samuel” by Dan Habib is about a family’s path to include their child Samuel, who has cerebral palsy, in all aspects of community life. If books are more to your liking, “No Pity” by Joseph Shapiro and “Being Heumann” by Judith Heumann and Kristen Joiner are two excellent places to start.

johnj.williams@thebaltimorebanner.com

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years.

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