Sunday, July 26, 2015

ADA Anniversary; 25 years of progress, but still a long way to go

By setting my last two novels in the early 1980s, I gave myself an advantage (age-wise, I knew how to place the characters' similar life events) and a disadvantage (the Americans with Disabilities Act would be years to come, not enacted until July 26, 1990). But it's still worth noting what could –and might– happen to Everett, the paraplegic character in these books, in his years ahead.

Robert L. Burgdorf, Jr. wrote a lengthy article in The Washington Post about how he (and others) wrote the Americans with Disabilities Act and worked to get it passed.

"The ADA was a response to an appalling problem: widespread, systemic, inhumane discrimination against people with disabilities. In 1971, a New York judge described people with disabilities as “the most discriminated [against] minority in our nation.” Large numbers of children with disabilities were systematically excluded from American public schools. In the early 1970s, according to widely quoted estimates, approximately 1 million school-aged individuals with disabilities were totally excluded from public educational programs, and another 3 million pupils with disabilities attended public schools but were not provided services to meet their basic educational needs. This meant that well over half of all kids with disabilities were not receiving minimally adequate education."

The Ben Franklin statue on the Penn campus from my 2012 visit.
In many ways, I gave Everett an advantage by having him be in a family of wealth. He attends a pricey school – The University of Pennsylvania. But even there, my research at Penn's archives revealed discrimination, tokenism, and a small measure of outreach that inhibited his ability to get into classrooms and around the historic campus.

Even today, college campuses still have problems with accessibility, as this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education shows.

"Colleges feared that renovating their campuses, adding sign-language interpreters, installing wheelchair-accessible facilities, and providing accommodations in a wide variety of areas including learning disabilities would be both difficult to achieve and costly. Private colleges and universities were among the largest sectors affected by the first legislation granting civil rights to people with disabilities, and, along with the business community, they hired lobbyists and brought lawsuits to prevent the ADA and other civil-rights legislation from taking effect."

a clipping from the Penn archives
Even after enactment of the ADA, problems continued.

"It would be comforting to say that colleges stopped placing obstacles on the road to disability rights, but in fact ADA lawsuits brought by or against colleges continued. While many institutions of higher education complied superficially, many more did not actively develop plans for disabled students."

 Even the forward-thinking UC Berkeley, home of the first accessible street intersections, and where pioneering disability activist Ed Roberts made inroads, problems persisted.

Many ivy league schools and universities, including UC Berkeley, "have been sued or have had a complaint brought against them for not providing access or alternative formats for disabled students or closed captioning for deaf students. If such an abysmal record had been discovered for racial or gender discrimination, the academic world would be in an uproar. But since this is about disabled people, the abuses go unnoticed until lawsuits or complaints are brought — and even then there is no public outcry."

from the U. Penn archives
Specific related events that took place at Penn became part of the story in my recent novel Message of Love, where the affluent and privileged Everett Forrester realizes that by being both gay and a paraplegic, he's a "double minority." 

Spoiler alert: In one chapter of Message of Love, inspired by the 1970s protests, Everett even organizes a small civil disobedience action at Philadelphia's City Hall with his wheelchair-using friends.

This is not at all meant to diminish the current horrific treatment of disabled people in violent police arrests that have frequently resulted in fatalities, and which should be considered outright murder. Multiple cases of African Americans with mental and physical disabilities have been reported, mostly via social media first, then only reluctantly by corporate media.

Admittedly, by casting two white male protagonists in my fiction, I "went easy" with those stories, and could not have foreseen such contemporary abuses that are all too frequent. But the politics of such a scourge is worth noting.

Burgdorf, Jr. discusses, in his article, the bipartisan nature of the ADA's passage:

"Disability has traditionally been a cross-party political matter, but the introduction and enactment of the ADA was extraordinarily bipartisan. Proposed by Reagan appointees in the NCD, initially sponsored by a Republican in the Senate (Senator Lowell Weicker) and a Democrat in the House of Representatives (Representative Tony Coelho), passed by a Democrat-controlled Senate and House of Representatives, and supported and signed by President George H.W. Bush, the ADA was a model of bipartisanship. As a result of such across-the-aisle support, the votes in Congress to pass the ADA were overwhelmingly in favor of passage. Since its passage, the ADA has been supported by each successive U.S. president, whether Democrat or Republican."

And yet, while people of all political parties claim to support, admire and find "inspiration" from people with disabilities, the case of veterans is inconsistent and often hypocritical.

Alex Minsky. photo: Michael Stokes
Photographer Michael Stokes received a lot of deserved attention for his beautiful series of portraits of disabled veterans, mostly amputees. The most famous among them, tattooed hunk and model Alex Minsky. The very gay-friendly actor, model, and spokesman has become the face –and body– of the newly eroticized disabled man. And –no surprise– my most popular posts on this blog are the ones that includes images and mention of Alex Minsky.

But even my most left-wing friends still make me cringe with the occasional "crippled" joke online or in person. And conservative people, who tout their admiration for veterans for serving their country, still support Republican politicians who have repeatedly –and actively– denied increasing or even retaining existing funds for veterans services. 

Not so photogenic are the thousands of homeless disabled veterans who crowd the streets of cities, particularly San Francisco. I've gladly endured weeks of noisy street construction right outside the offices where I work, since they're adding accessible curb cuts. Ironically, homeless people have even used the orange dividers as makeshift shelters on those same streets.

Despite outreach by local nonprofits, even our most "liberal" local politicians continue to skirt the pressing issues by focusing on preventing homeless people from "loitering" while wasting funds on architectural "solutions" instead of providing needed mental health services and housing. In Los Angeles, according to The Nation, the Veterans Administration, even under the current Obama administration, fails miserably to provide services for veterans.

A quarter of a century after the ADA, the struggle continues. It's not just about ramps and parking spaces. It's about seeing and acknowledging the needs of our citizens. 

My fiction aims toward that, while essential being a form of entertainment. Hopefully, it's more than that.

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