Access Living organizer wins Justin Dart Award from CCDI

By Kevin Cosgrove

In May, the Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities in Illinois awarded its highest honor for achievement to Access Living’s long-time employee and disability community leader Rene Luna. The award – named the Justin Dart Award for Distinguished Citizens – is given annually and has recognized many influential leaders.

Luna, who has been with Access Living in several different positions since 1988, won the award for his many accomplishments through more than three decades of difference-making activism. Luna played a role in the Chicago Transit Authority buying accessible buses and rehabbing train stations to accommodate to people with disabilities. He helped lobby for the passage of a number of highly important bills, including Employment First, which requires Illinois state agencies to work together to make employment for people with disabilities a priority. He has also dedicated considerable effort to helping immigrants with disabilities, and is currently focused on increasing the rate of employment for the disability community through his present job title as Access Living’s Community Organizer for Employment.

“I became involved in the mid-1980s with [the disability activism organization] ADAPT and I’ve been working here [at Access Living] 26 years,” Luna said. “So I’ve seen a lot of victories, including the accessible mainline bus access, the passage of the [Americans with Disabilities Act], and the passage of the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance to bar discrimination against disabled people too. So I think I played a role in all of those major accomplishments.”

Though Luna was unable to attend the award ceremony in Springfield, his close friend and colleague Susan Aarup – who also nominated him – accepted the award for him and spoke on his behalf.

“I nominated Rene Luna because he works tirelessly for the rights of people with disabilities,” said Aarup, who is a member of the steering committee for Luna’s Disabled Americans Want Work Now (DAWWN) group – an organizing team dedicated to advocating for workers and prospective workers with disabilities. “He is a very quiet leader who does a lot of work behind the scenes - especially when it comes to employment and immigrant rights . . . I couldn't imagine nominating anyone else for this award.”

In addition to working on initiatives for disability employment with DAWWN, he has helped facilitate a Deaf Literacy Program at Access Living. He said his work has led to the state agreeing to start a program modeled after a Canadian system in which well-educated Deaf instructors teach other Deaf and hard-of-hearing adults to learn or improve their reading and writing skills. The idea of people with disabilities working with each other and taking leadership exemplifies Luna’s philosophy of building a cooperative community with shared goals and a degree of “interdependency.”

”I really feel it’s important to have a grassroots community speaking for themselves and empowering people and groups to take action and to address their own needs,” Luna said. “One of the things that I’m happy about with DAWWN is that it’s cross-disability. It really is. We have people who are Deaf, people who are blind, people with autism and people with physical disabilities. […] And we support one another.” Luna continued, “As we’ve been advocating for the program for Deaf literacy, people with physical disabilities have been strongly supportive of that, so I think we all have to realize that we’re in it together and the more we unite, the stronger we are.”

Congratulations Rene!