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Thursday, July 8, 2010

New York Public Library Does Disability: We Have a Problem

The New York Public Library is a New York landmark. It is a truly special place. Visitors can rub shoulders with tourists, writers (famous and unknown), researchers, and characters only New York City can produce. NYPL is also an architectural gem and, as with most landmark buildings, I get to enter through a side door. Yes, those monolithic steps and two lions guarding the front doors look great but do not do me much good.

The NYPL is commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the ADA this July. The library is holding a series of events and I highly recommend people attend. I am impressed with the NYPL programs as they have gotten outstanding scholars, politicians, and writers to participate. Yesterday's panel discussion, "The ADA: On the Personal Level" was an absolute delight. I was able to hear two of my favorite writers on disability read from their contributions to Voices From the Edge--here I refer to Leonard Kriegel and Stephen Kuusisto. Also on the panel was Achim Nowak and the moderator was Ruth O'Brien who edited the aforementioned text. All four people did a great job. I entered the library yesterday with some trepidation. I was going to be miserable if I heard people talk about how great the ADA was and what amazing progress has been made. I trusted the writers who appeared though and I was not disappointed. Kriegel was exactly as expected--a hard ass New Yorker with an edge. Kriegal is a manly man whose presence and writing oozes testosterone. His reading from "Beloved Enemy: A Cripple in the Crippled City" reminded me why I love New York. He made me realize yet again that the toughest New Yorkers are we cripples that live and thrive in the city. Kuusisto was poetic and funny--again, exactly what I expected. He wrote a short essay for this occasion and took the opportunity to blast higher education for its ongoing failure to accommodate students with a disability. Like Kriegal, a first rate hard ass, Kuusisto made a point to mention that when he flew into Newark Airport a taxi driver refused to drive him and his guide dog Nira--so much for the progress of the ADA. He also humorously told the audience about the byzantine world of 311 that lead him on a telephone journey to nowhere when he tried to lodge a complaint. Also impressive were Achim Nowak and Ruth O"Brien. Nowak read from his essay "Disclosure" about his experience letting others know he was HIV positive. He reminded me what a huge social and personal difference there is between those with a visible as opposed to invisible disability. As for O'Brien she edited Voices From the Edge and no doubt gets disability, Not only do all the essays fit well together but I admired the first sentence of her Preface that put readers on notice they were in for a serious experience: "Informed by my own experience, I came to the understanding that living with a physical impairment, even a temporary one, means that you are bound to face humiliation when you present your needs to other people". Oh how true and oh how unnecessary.

If the NYPL produced such a great program what is the problem? The audience was sparse at best. There was row after row of empty seats. To be blunt the auditorium was virtually empty. How can this be? Well, the program was held between 3 and 5PM when most people are at work. I am sure the fact it was 100 f. did not help audience turn out as well. Regardless of the time and heat, I am bitterly disappointed. Here we had name writers and a prestigious institution putting forth a great effort to enlighten the public and no one showed up. This is a giant social problem. To me it is indicative that few people give a damn about disability rights or the subject in general. Too many have a hazy idea that we passed a law about wheelchair access a long time ago and that the issue was solved. These people look at the little blue wheelchair logos plastered all over the place and don't give the subject another thought. My experience and that of all other people with a disability reveals how wrong this line of thinking is. Prejudice is rampant--a point Kuusisto made with force by relating his experience at Newark Airport. What gets me is why, 20 years after the ADA was passed, does ignorance abound? Why don't people care? Why do people perceive disability as some sort of personal tragedy devoid of any civil rights implications? Kuusisto blames the university system as it relates to rampant unemployment. I for one blame the entire educational system for its refusal to make accommodations and the media for its simplistic portrayal of disability as being nothing more or less than a personal tragedy. Kriegal, like most New Yorkers, is simply pissed off. Combine our views and a realistic portrait of disability, disability the social experience, emerges. If this is something readers want to learn more about go to the other scheduled events New York Library has planned. I assure you there will be plenty of room.


Becs said...

I was researching a project at the Museum of the City of New York. On my way back down to Penn Station, I stopped in front of the library. I knew there was no way I was going to walk up those steps and I was afraid that the handicapped entrance would be through a long, hazardous circuitous hall. I didn't go that day.

The program you went to see is news to me. Had it been on a weekend, had I known about it before it zipped past me, I would have gone. It's a shame it wasn't better publicized.

A friend of mine says disability rights are going nowhere until we Boomers use chairs, crutches, and canes and wake up to the fact that civil rights aren't very in certain segments of the population.

william Peace said...

Becs, The event was poorly advertised for sure. I have no idea if other events held by the library are poorly attended as well. I suspect not.
The Boomers do not impress me. Quite a few people share your views the Boomers will have an impact on disability rights. I sincerely doubt it as Boomers are ill equipped to deal with any sort of social adversity. I suspect Boomers will suffer in silence and blame themselves for their lot in life.