January is Poverty Awareness Month, a month-long initiative to raise awareness and call attention to the growth of poverty in America. Today, there are 46.7 million Americans living in poverty - a total population greater than Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Kansas and Nebraska combined. If that's not troubling enough, when we delve deeper into the statistics, we find that nearly 1 in 3 individuals with disabilities are living in poverty - and even worse, the disability-poverty rate is twice the rate to that for individuals without disabilities. Now, more than ever, it is time to break the disability-poverty pipeline. We intend on doing exactly that at National Disability Institute (NDI).
At the start of the New Year, and coinciding with Poverty Awareness Month, NDI set two overarching goals to accomplish by 2025 and realize the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which explicitly guarantees the opportunity to achieve "economic self-sufficiency" for ALL Americans, no matter their disability status. Our goals are: (1) to cut the poverty rate for working-age adults with disabilities in half; and (2) increase banking access and use among people with disabilities by 50 percent.
To make these initiatives a reality, we are traveling across the country and working with a broad range of partners to solicit buy-in to a collective action agenda to improve and expand financial inclusion for Americans with disabilities. One of our partners is disability advocates and recording artists, 4WheelCity. The New York City hip-hop duo of Namel "Tapwaterz" Norris and Ricardo "Rickfire" Velasquez, both victims of gun violence and wheelchair users, are lending their "voice" to our mission. We are honored to have them join us on the journey.
Namel and Ricardo are all too familiar with the expectations and general roles assigned to members of the disability community. Both need Social Security benefits and other public benefits to make ends meet, and continue to push back on commonly held stereotypes. They dream of the day when they will achieve financial self-sufficiency and have the capability to secure the American Dream - just like their non-disabled peers.
To help spread the message, and to highlight the challenges of poverty and disability, 4WheelCity worked with NDI to write the hit song, "Mainstream."
Never heard of 4WheelCity? Recently, we sat down with Namel and Ricardo to talk about music, poverty and getting more people with disabilities into the "Mainstream." You will find their experiences to be like that of many Americans with disabilities.
NDI: First off, what words would best describe 4WheelCity?"
Ricardo and Namel: "Resilient, brave, leaders, pioneers and survivors. We don't take 'no' for an answer!"
NDI: "How has your disability changed your life? What insights has it given you? New perspectives?"
Ricardo: "Well, one day I was walking. Then, the next day, I wasn't. My disability has made me appreciate everything - to take nothing for granted. With my injury, I quickly found out that family will always be there and have your back."
Namel: "I was always active in sports growing up. After my accident - when I was 17 - suddenly everything changed. I was no longer able to walk or play the sports I used to. My disability changed my state of mind. Before my disability, I was on the wrong path; just another kid from the projects following the wrong crowd. But, after becoming a person with disabilities, I learned our decisions have consequences - good and bad."
NDI: "What's your American Dream? Do you want to own a house? A car? Send your kids to college?"
Ricardo: "I want to be like every other Americans. I want to own my own home and car and have the opportunity to travel the world. I want to be okay financially. Honestly, I'm just tired of living paycheck-to-paycheck."
Namel: "The American Dream, to me, is all about my finances. Rick and I are two paraplegics from the projects in the Bronx, fighting to make a difference in other peoples' lives. We are the American Dream, the American Spirit!"
NDI: "What's 4WheelCity's message?"
Namel: "Rick and I are in a unique position. Before we started, the hip-hop world would have never given a second thought to a person with disabilities."
Ricardo: "Our message is to change the perception and attitudes of others toward a person in a wheelchair, or a person with any type of disability."
NDI: "What would you like to see happen to Americans with disabilities both culturally and economically?"
Ricardo: "Give us jobs! A lot of us have great ideas... stigma needs to change!"
Namel: "I want the mentality of others and perceptions toward people with disabilities to change. I want people to look beyond the wheelchair. Let's get rid of the ignorance that exists among some when it comes to access to shops, clubs, taxis, restaurants and so many more places."
NDI: "Tell us about your newest song, "Mainstream?" What are you trying to get across to people?"
Namel: "In the song, we mention the "mainstream of the economy." Everyone should have access. We should all have the right to earn and spend our money how we want... be mainstream, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said about the content of your character. It also means that if you work hard, you will have greater opportunities for success. The song is about breaking down barriers; we need to help each other out."
Ricardo: "Everyone should be able to work and dream. No one should be held back. The mainstream is about everyone being 'A-List.' The song tells the struggle of who we are as artists - our life in poverty. The song's beat is rugged and reminds me of the Depression. We are letting the world know we and so many other people with disabilities are coming!"