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Sunday, July 26, 2015

The ADA 25th Anniversary: I am Not Happy nor in a Celebratory Mood

The Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA, is 25 years old today. For the last week I have been reading article after article about how successful the ADA has been. I have read articles by professors of disability studies that are self aggrandizing or devoid of insight into the real lives of people with a disability. I have read articles by journalists that are hopelessly naive. I have read multiple "feel good stories" that annoyed me to no end. I read far too many articles that concluded the United States is a world leader in disability rights and that any current complaints by people with a disability are likely made by malcontents. What was missing in  all the articles I read was any semblance of nuance. A person unfamiliar with disability, 80 % of the non disabled population, could and would rapidly conclude the ADA solved all problems people with a disability might encounter. They likely moved on to the next story secure in thinking if I or a loved one ever becomes disabled all is well and support services are at worst adequate and at best superb. Any person with a disability knows this is a fantasy. The social support net safety net is in fact designed to keep people on the edge of financial and personal disaster.  

Given the above, I have been especially cranky the last week or two. I have not articulated my unhappiness to others. Well, I have been vocal with my Boston based friends, especially leading up to the big ADA celebration in the Boston Common that I attended with others.  About two thousand people attended the celebration. Multiple stories appeared in the news and an NPR station interviewed me. Link: I found this article and its audio report particularly bad. I did not provide the feel good sound bite required for the celebration and supposed equality the ADA created. No one wants to discuss the weaknesses of the ADA and the fact there is no social demand the law be enforced. The spin in all news stories has been positive in the extreme. For exampled State Attorney General Maura Healey stated Because of the ADA, businesses and employers cannot deny people employment based on a disability.” People with disabilities are no longer isolated and segregated by states. Because of the ADA, transportation and public facilities must address the needs of people with physical and mental disabilities.”

 Healy is correct--the ADA states this. No one however wants to discuss why the unemployment rate among people with a disability has not changed in twenty five years. No one wants to discuss why access to mass transportation is inherently difficult. No one is interested in years long waiting lists for accessible housing. In Syracuse where I work the waiting list for accessible housing is four to five years long and only 5% of housing is accessible. The incapable conclusion is that the ADA from a sociocultural viewpoint is an utter failure. The law is on our side but from my experience no one cares and when it comes to money; "reasonable accommodations" are the first line items cut. All will cluck about how important wheelchair access is or providing ASL interpreters for the deaf but inevitably a long silence occurs and the "reasonable accommodations" are cut from the budget. One person might state we can address the issue if a person with a disability complains or a deaf person appears and asks about an interpreter. To me this is even worse--it individualizes disability and by itself is grossly misleading. The ADA is a civil rights law on par with widely accepted and respected civil rights. To get this idea across I often tell others I have been told when I try to enter an establishment I am often told "Sorry, wheelchairs are not allowed" or "Wheelchairs must be seated in the back corner". I suggest substitute "wheelchair" with "black person", or "woman" and people would be out raged. When it comes to disability based discrimination there is no outrage.  Somehow disability remains different. Support for the civil rights of people with a disability is passive. It is a choice. 

The only article I read this week that was insightful was limited in scope (though important) and directly affects many of those I teach. In "Where's the Outrage When Colleges Discriminate Against Students with Disabilities" by Leonard Davis in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Link: Davis writes: 

Today, many colleges pride themselves on being accommodating to all students — but in fact, far from aiding the cause of Americans with disabilities, colleges have been instrumental in blocking those rights. July 26th marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. As we celebrate the accomplishments of that law, let’s not forget that while colleges have embraced efforts to promote diversity and the rights of people of color, women, and LGBTQ students and faculty, they have fought a less noticed war against disability rights. In the past, a good deal of the march toward the Americans With Disabilities Act was driven by activism and lawsuits brought by college students against their administrations — even while administrators were lobbying to eviscerate such legislation. There was a time when there were virtually no students with disabilities on campuses. Blind and deaf people were sent to residential schools where they learned trades. People with mobility impairments couldn’t get out of the house to commute to colleges, and dorms were inaccessible. Learning-disabled people often didn’t make it to higher education.
I came of age in the pre ADA era. I fought to get on MTA buses in New York City. I despised the very low standard people with a disability were held to. Being accepted to a university and graduating  was considered a great accomplishment for a person with a disability. Going to graduate school, in my case an Ivy League institution, was perceived to be heroic. I rejected this line of logic at the time and today. What I did academically was ordinary for a man my age that wanted to be an academic. I did what my non disabled peers were doing--living an ordinary life. This is not what society expects. We people with a disability are denied the ordinary. If I graduate from Columbia and father a child I am an amazing person--damn near super human. If I utterly fail, it is understandable. My paralysis suddenly enters the equation and is used to justify my failure. 

Discrimination against people with a disability has changed. It is as rampant today as it was when I was in college and graduate school 25 years ago. What has changed is the sort of discrimination students encounter. What takes place today is superficial compliance with the ADA. Inane and heated discussions take place over trivial maters. The new "active" wheelchair logo is placed in parking lot spots designated for disabled people. This change is discussed in detail while the library under going renovation will remain inaccessible for several years while renovations are under way. No one wants to discus why blind people needlessly struggle to access scholarly writing on line. For instance Stephen Kuusisto recently wrote a post at Planet of the Blind entitled "My Everest: University of Michigan Press". The University of Michigan Press, known for producing many excellent texts concerning disability, is difficult to access in screen readable formats. Kuusisto, a distinguished scholar and poet, notes that anyone who thinks disability related barriers were solved by a law passed 25 years years ago is sorely mistaken. Disability remains a difficult social issue. The problem is not technology but the willing ignorance of others. He wrote anyone who thinks disability is easy is dishonest. 

Displacement narratives of stamina and disability which are designed to inspire the non-disabled trouble the bejeezus out of me. This is because ordinary blindness, the daily “living with it” blindness, is often dreadful. One way blindness remains grim concerns the ongoing and considerable difficulty of acquiring accessible books. As a blind scholar I must say this is my Mt. Everest. Getting ahold of books I can read is not only difficult, it’s often nearly impossible. When the “i” word enters into disability land, it means more often than not, that inaccessibility is essentially part of the built environment.
This is exactly why I consider the ADA a social failure. Inaccessibility is built into the socially and physically created environment. Inaccessibility regardless of the disability itself is part of the fabric of life. I am more than troubled. I am angry. I get angry every time I hear the ADA praised and how great life is for people with a disability. I am ready to spit nails of fury when I hear politicians that know nothing about disability state the United States is a world leader in disability rights; that we as a nation serve as a model for other countries to follow but have not signed the UN Treaty on disability rights. If this were the case Kuusisto and every other blind person in the United States would flawlessly access books on line. Every publisher would demand its books be readily accessible. ASL interpreters would be at every public lecture, political rally, protest and a myriad of other events. When wheelchair access is brought up it would be a top priority for let's say an architectural firm. Beautifully designed access would be the "brand" of the corporation. All this of course is a fantasy. Access in the broadest sense of the term remains an unwanted add on; the ramp is attached to the side of a building or placed in the rear out of sight. Architects do not want to mar their design with a federally mandated ramp. 

I will know the ADA is a grand success when on any night of the week I can go out with friends and not put access issues as the prime consideration. The mental gymnastics that take place for the ordinary are an ever present reminder the world is designed for bipedal people. As one and all were praising the ADA I was thinking about going out to dinner with friends. The logistics involved were daunting. How does a restaurant deal with a manual wheelchair user like me, a person that uses a scooter, and a person that uses a power wheelchair and has a service dog. Oh, and we had one biped coming with us.  Instantly Friday and Saturday night were eliminated. Too crowded for crippled people. Forget the local Asian restaurant. Too narrow to accommodate us. In the end I often eat at big box corporate restaurants. I do not want to do this. I prefer local establishments. But the corporate places offer more space and maybe even an accessible bathroom--an out of the norm "accommodation" that requires me to change what I drink. When all of the above does not take place on that day I will be equal. I do not expect to live long enough to experience that sort of equality.  


michaelwatsonvt said...

I am grateful for the changes in accessibility, as inadequate as they are. I agree that social barriers remain, and are fiercely defended by many. Still, I imagine others see the ADA as doing something useful, thus the efforts to roll it back. A mixed outcome for sure.

william Peace said...

I am not grateful at all for the social and physical progress the ADA has protected. The ADA must be framed as civil rights legislation in large part because the vast majority of people do not equate the law as having anything to do about civil rights. I am not critiquing you but rather choose to push hard to get people to rethink what they have been taught and absorbed about disability. I think you are spot on with your observation the results have been mixed.