As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so famously said,
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
When it comes to disability and social justice, it seems that the arc has bent, but that we still have far to ROLL.
When I started college at the University of Miami in 1985, Student Disability Services had never before accommodated someone in a wheelchair. There were no accessible rooms or campus facilities. The bathrooms barely fit my chair, and I couldn’t close the door behind me. In fact, I had to roll from classes all the way back to my dorm room to use the bathroom.
As someone with a new spinal cord injury and a bladder that was still in shock and unpredictable, I often didn’t make it back in time. I had been discharged from Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation in New York with a chrome Everest and Jennings hemiplegic chair (low to the ground) and a vinyl covered foam cushion seat. I would push that old chair as fast as I could so that no one would see drips coming from the back of my chair when my bladder just couldn’t wait.
If I was included when friends went out at night, I couldn’t use the restrooms. We had a ritual of finding a strong guy who could pick me up, carry me to the stall, shut the door, wait, and then come back to get me. It was a good thing that I only weighed 100 lbs. then and I had the ability to take my pants off while seated on the toilet!
The ADA: Milestones and Millstones
In 1990, after a long and dedicated effort from pioneers in the disability rights movement, President George W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. Despite the Chicken Little mentality of many in the business and religious communities – the chairman of Greyhound Bus Lines testified to Congress that the ADA had the potential to “deprive millions of people of affordable intercity public transportation and thousands of rural communities of their only link to the outside world” – the bill’s supporters caused the arc of moral justice to dramatically curve toward inclusion and equality.
We finally could depend on ramps into government buildings, meaning that we could get married, visit a library, or sit on a jury (thought The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 had required access to programs and activities that are funded by Federal agencies and to Federal employment, the ADA went farther with Title II.) We could shop at stores, eat at restaurants, use bathrooms without being carried, and go on job interviews. But the fight was far from over since the enforcement of disability rights were our responsibility.
We Must Hold the Line and PUSH Forward
The ADA turned 25 in 2015. Most believe the cooperation and governmental effectiveness of making this law into a reality would not have been able to be achieved in the climate of the last decade. There have been calls to overturn it or weaken it, and they have been held off by President Barack Obama. In fact, the law was amended in 2008 to make it more clear as to what was considered a disability and expand coverage. Then in 2011, new regulations were published that gave specific guidance, such as the need for pool lifts in places that offer pools and spas as amenities.
Most people are not aware of the fact that the way the law was designed if a business did not comply willingly, the enforcement of disability rights were the responsibility of the disabled themselves. You would complain to the Department of Justice if it applies to State or local government entities (Title II) or public accommodations and commercial facilities (Title III). For employment discrimination (Title I), you would file a Charge of Discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Additionally, you can enforce your rights via an ADA attorney, who can compel an entity to perform. However, none of these provide punitive (you did wrong and should have known better!) or compensatory (my client was late for their meeting or had to be humiliated at a public event due to no restroom, and you need to pay to compensate him for his emotional, psychological or actual monetary damages) punishments. Only actual compliance can be required by the law (unlike previous Civil Rights Laws).
Nevertheless, our individual and collective enforcement efforts are working. I have personally been a plaintiff and am proud to say my efforts resulted in amazing places becoming accessible for those who now visit. I am proud to be a soldier in the army of activists who have taken a powerful stance in making the U.S. more accessible for people who roll instead of walk, who sign instead of speak, and who read with their fingers instead of their eyes.
Visibility and Invisibility
Ramps, curb cuts, larger bathrooms, and other ADA accommodations have increased our visibility in society.
We are here; we are seen. Our contributions to the diversity and fabric of society are evident. We are mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, lovers, spouses, bosses, contractors, and employees. We are brown, black, and white. We are old and young. We are men, women, and trans*. We are straight, gay, and queer. We are 60 million strong.
Yet, despite being fully 19 percent of the U.S. population, we are nearly invisible in popular culture and in the eyes of the media.
Folks in wheelchairs don’t often show up in the world of advertising. The most memorable commercial might be the Guinness wheelchair basketball commercial, but that was in 2014. The most infamous might be the recent Zuma Juice commercial that managed to triple down on stereotypes by despicably mocking a woman in a wheelchair.
Despite the efforts of groups such as ToyLikeMe disabled kids rarely see their experiences and physicality reflected in toys. In fact, LEGO produced its first young rolling minifigure in 2016.
Hollywood’s track record is equally abysmal. A 2016 study found that a whopping 95 percent of disabled characters in top television shows are portrayed by able-bodied actors. For every disabled Michal Fowler (as JJ in “Speechless”), there are ten able-bodied Kevin McHales (as Artie on “Glee). And that doesn’t count movies featuring roles played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Cruise, and Jon Voight, all of whom earned Academy Award nominations for their portrayal of disabled characters.
Our Next Challenge
As we continue to assert our rights in arenas like equal employment and public accommodations, we must also fight to be seen in a media landscape and popular culture that largely overlooks us. By demanding full inclusion in magazine editorial photo shoots, advertising campaigns, television and movie roles, and – yes – even in toys, we can create a more inclusive world. We can spur awareness and understanding, remove barriers to love and friendship, and generate empowerment within our community. We can bend the arc of the moral universe further toward disability justice.
We can bend the arc of the moral universe further toward disability justice.
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