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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Happy Anniversary: Who Cares?

Today is the 19th anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act. Unlike previous years when I had friends over to my home to celebrate the day I began to share the same civil rights as other Americans, today I have no such plans. I don't feel like celebrating in part because the ADA is the only civil rights legislation that has utterly failed to resonate with the general public. You average American does not care about the ADA and if they put any thought into the legislation at all they would be worried about how much it will cost them as a business owner or tax payer. How do I know this? I watched all three major network news programs (ABC, CBS, and NBC), local and national, and the ADA anniversary was filler on two programs for less than 15 seconds. This is deeply depressing and indicative of why 19 years after the law was passed equality for people with a disability has not changed substantially. Consider the following:

When the ADA was passed the unemployment rate among people with a disability was 70% Today the unemployment rate is 66%

The poverty rate among people with a disability is three times higher than those who do not have a disability. This has not changed one iota in 19 years.

It is estimated one in six Americans has a disability. When was the last time you saw a person with a visible disability at work or when shopping at a myriad of stores?

When was the last time you saw a blind person and their seeing eye dog at work, school, theatre, on a bus, at an airport, or in the community?

Does the college you went to or the school you attended teach American Sign Language as part of its language program?

Name three leaders in the history of the disability rights movement (FDR and Christopher Reeve do not count)?

What is the purpose of the ADA Restoration Act and when was it passed into law?

What does ADAPT stand for and advocate?

The above facts and questions are not or shouldn't be considered obscure. However, I estimate no more than a tiny fraction of people could answer the questions I posed. This is a problem and people are suffering because of it. People with a disability remain stigmatized, unemployed, and invisible. Progress, glacial at best, is an indictment of the American people. We as a country have failed. The ADA has failed. You my dear reader have failed. I have failed. We have all failed to follow and in some cases even acknowledge the law. This failure is not complicated. Indeed, is simple. The point of the ADA is that people with a disability cannot be discriminated against. In spite of this discrimination is common place. I know each and every day I leave my home I will encounter social and architectural barriers. Cab drivers in New York City will not stop to pick me up. The building where I teach has no ramp that conforms to the ADA and I cannot enter the bathroom. When I fly I routinely am treated poorly by airline personnel and significantly delayed getting off a plane. The public school my son attends in the affluent suburbs of New York has one accessible "short bus". The auditorium at my son's school is grossly inaccessible despite the fact it was just renovated.

The failure of the ADA is proof positive that one cannot legislate equality and civil rights for a disenfranchised group of people without the public support. And let me assure you there is no public support for the ADA and the civil rights of people with a disability. Let me also assure you that in spite of what the Supreme Court thinks people with a disability are a distinct and insular minority group. Economically, socially and politically people with a disability are oppressed. We people with a disability are not in positions of power. We are not elected to office, appointed as judges, hired as teachers, employed or visible in our community. The consequences of this are profound and its historic roots unknown. Disability in the broadest sense of the term is a bogey man--something people fear but rarely acknowledge. In the "olden days" institutions dotted the landscape where we warehoused people with a disability. The conditions at these institutions were horrific (think Willowbrook). The doors to these institutions may be closed and little blue wheelchair signs abound but people with a disability remain isolated at multiple levels. I know all about isolation because I am always the only person that uses a wheelchair where ever I go. I am the only person that uses a wheelchair at work. I am the only regular shopper at a number of stores I frequent that uses a wheelchair. I am always the only wheelchair user on a plane, train or bus. I am the only dinner at a restaurant that uses a wheelchair. I am the only person that attends a local parade, town or school board meeting that uses a wheelchair. I am the only professor my students have had that uses a wheelchair. You get the point but has the question why popped into your head? Why am I so singularly unusual? I am unusual because bigotry is the norm. Architectural and social barriers exist because we Americans permit them. We vote against inclusion and all those expensive elevators, wheelchair lifts, interpreters for the deaf, aides and special education teachers in our schools. We build multi million dollar athletic fields in our communities but fight like rabid dogs to prevent a group home from opening.

The average American does not argue for inclusion, that is left to people like me and as a result I am considered to be a narcissist, interested in my own welfare. For change to happen we crippled people must get angry and stay that way. We must become uppity cripples just as blacks were once called "uppity niggers". We must piss on charity, think Jerry Lewis, and assert our civil rights. That means get on the bus, plane, train and airplane and go to school or work. In return we must reach out and get other disenfranchised groups and the general public to support us. When people complain about our presence and the cost of access we must react--civil disobedience of the sort practiced by ADAPT works. We must spread this word and find a charismatic leader who has the chance to become a media darling. We need a go to guy or gal the media can count on when disability rights makes the news. The message must be clear: equality is not solely about architectural barriers but equal access in our communities, the ability to get to and from school or work, representation in government and private business. We have rights, equal rights, and they must be respected. It is the law. Break this law and you go to jail. Like I said the message is simple and the laws are already in place. We just need people to comply.


Alison Hymes said...

I'm not celebrating for all your reasons plus the fact that civil rights for people with psychiatric disabilities have actually vastly decreased since the passage of the ADA, especially in the last decade. People can lose their freedom on a whim, a lie, for nothing and have no appeal and no recourse and nobody cares and our movement has been bought out by those who want to earn money being part of the system as "peer providers" and thus will not speak up for all those forced onto damaging drugs and ECT against their will, locked up in institutions for years, since last year put on an FBI list for being disabled, still being tied up and isolated, one man for 20 plus years and we are dying younger and younger from the new generation of drugs forced or coerced on many. 25 years younger.

william Peace said...

Alison, You make a number of excellent points. Psychiatric disabilities carry far more stigma than a physical deficit such as my paralysis. I never cease to be shocked by this and the degree to which colleges for example do little or nothing to help students. I have seen some of the college students I teach fall apart before me as mental illnesses develop. There is not much I can do and since the Virginia Tech shooting colleges are less concerned with the welfare of students than they are with protecting the institution. I lay the blame for this on Reagan who dumped people out on the streets--a punitive cost saving measure whose legacy is with us today. Add in the Patriot Act and it is a scary landscape for those with a psychiatric disability.

Greg said...

well said

Stephanie Lynn Keil said...

Yes, I agree: cognitive disabilities (neurological, psychiatric, etc.) are vastly different from physical disabilities.

I am quite upset that our country still has not accommodated those with physical disabilities such as yourself. Yet, people often fail to realize that "accommodations" for people with cognitive disabilities are quite different.

I have high-functioning autism and bipolar and I cannot work, mostly due to my autism. I have attempted to hold a job and even have "accommodations" but they do not function the same way as those with physical disabilities.

A store manager cannot expect the customers to simply "accept" my bizarre autistic behavior because it drives away customers. Nor can I expect to have the lights dimmed and music quiet and air conditioning suited to my needs.

Those with cognitive disabilities need as much treatment as possible to alleviate their symptoms so that they can function. I have tried other routes and have failed so I am attempting to "normalize" myself as much as possible so I can have a chance at a successful life.

william Peace said...

Greg, What amazes me is the complete lack of news on the ADA anniversary. Nationally I estimate less than a small handful of comments have been made in editorial sections and even disability related blogs. The print and TV media I understand--they never cared--but the lack of comment on blogs is distressing.

Stephanie, Yes, physical and cognitive disabilities are very different. What they share is disrespect and inability to negotiate difference. People with a physical disability such as mine will never be hired by a retailer such as the Gap. A news report was just broadcast that had two young men, early 20s. one that used a wheelchair and the other that could walk try to get a job. The wheelchair user entered the Gap and asked if a position was open. He was told no. The next young man entered the same Gap 5 minutes later and was given an application. It seems to me people with a physical disability struggle to get in the door as the above story demonstrated. For people with a cognitive disability getting in the door is not the problem, the issue is appropriate accommodations. The prejudice is the same and wrong.