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DIA In The News

From The New York Times

July 27, 2010
Able to Sing, Able to Fight for Their Rights

By JAMES ESTRIN

DIA Singers performing
Access the original article's link which features a 5 minute, 19 second video
The picture above is from the video "Not Done Yet," which was produced by James Estrin and Valerie Lapinski.

A group of aging folk singers slowly enters a church basement in Manhattan where they are to give a concert. Observing them maneuver to their places behind the microphones some are blind, others are in wheelchairs, some are accompanied by family members, others by home health aides it is clear that this concert is going to be a little out of the ordinary.

Members of the audience, many of whom are also disabled, erupt in cheers and whistles as the Disabled In Action (D.I.A.) Singers launch into their anthem, "Two Good Legs."

Oh, crippled in the heart,
Yes, crippled in the heart.
What good is having two good legs
If you're crippled in the heart?

Influenced by the songs of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, the D.I.A. Singers provided the soundtrack to their own struggle for equal rights and equal access over the last 35 years. And like their role models, they did more than sing songs. They also took to the barricades.

The group sang its testimony at hearings about public access before the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. They also took over the M.T.A. executive offices with a sit-in. Until you've seen politicians and police captains trying to figure out how to remove dozens of people in wheelchairs, you haven't fully experienced the power of civil disobedience.

"Singing was part of the struggle," said Anne Emerman, who with her husband, Sidney Emerman helped found the group. "Our songs were political and they worked in tandem with our activities in the streets and the legislative halls."

"It was persistent and directed work, but we had a heck of a lot of fun. And that was the key."

Along with other activists around the country, the singers insisted on universal access to streets and buildings, to public transportation, to affordable housing and supportive services.

Their struggle for equal opportunities reached a milestone 20 years ago this week when the Americans With Disabilities Act became law, prohibiting discrimination because of disability in the full and equal use of public accommodations.

Founded in the late 1970s, the D.I.A. Singers performed in nursing homes, at rallies and for several years at the annual Clearwater Festival. They even issued two CDs.

But as they have grown older, and the demonstrations fewer, they've performed less often. The concert in April was billed as a reunion.

Though her comrades in wheelchairs are now mostly in their 60s and 70s, Ms. Emerman said they still have important battles to fight.

"These massive government budget cuts are threatening many of our gains," said Ms. Emerman, who was director of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities under David N. Dinkins. "You always have to push government to comply with their own laws."

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