Tuesday, July 27, 2010

My Reflections on the ADA Anniversary

If you missed my NPR broadcast on Monday, July 26, you're not alone. I missed it, too.

Local stations sometimes cut away from the program for local news or special reports. For some reason, my commentary suffered this fate at many NPR affiliates.

It's online, of course.

Anyway, here's the original, long version--the one I reduced to fit NPR requirements.

(Fans of "Miracle Boy Grows Up"--and, yes, there are some--will have to wait a few days for the next installment. But I promise I will keep posting manuscript excerpts.)

The 20th Anniversary of the Disabilities Act: A Personal Reflection

by Ben Mattlin

When I was in school--even when I graduated from college and first looked for a job--it was legal to discriminate against people like me.

That's because I was born with a neuromuscular condition called spinal muscular atrophy. I've always used a wheelchair and my hands are weak as a baby's. My parents told me I could be anything I wanted when I grew up. But that wasn't quite true.

When the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law on July 26, 1990, I was 27. Yet I had only recently become fully sentient of disability discrimination.

I was too young to realize what was going on when my parents struggled to find a decent school willing to accept a handicapped child in the 1960s and 70s. My able-bodied older brother's schools wouldn't have me. I assumed it was because I wasn't smart enough.

Then he and I attended Harvard together. Coincidentally, my freshman year, 1980, was the deadline for institutions like Harvard to become wheelchair accessible, under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which became a kind of model for the ADA. I recall a different college's admissions officer had confessed it would be "damn difficult" to meet my needs, presumably to discourage me from applying, while another's actually accepted me before I applied, presumably to discourage me from suing.

I was a reluctant pioneer, but what choice did I have? I appreciated Harvard's nascent efforts to render its sprawling, cobblestone campus wheelchair-friendly; then I was barred from having roommates. One dean gave this explanation: my presence might impair the other students' collegiate experience. Never mind how the isolation and loneliness of this blatant segregation could sour mine.

It sounds shocking to me now, especially in light of today's assimilated schools. But in those days, full integration of the disabled seemed as impossible as allowing gays in the military. I accepted the situation as I did Boston's long winters.

After graduation was when the bitter sting of discrimination really sank in. No one would hire me, even for an unpaid internship. Worse still, potential employers seemed interested till they met me in person, wheels and all.

Eventually I landed a freelance writing assignment for a weekly business paper. I typed slowly, with the few fingers I could use. My piece ran on the front page. Other assignments followed, and my name got around. I began amassing a thick portfolio of tear sheets. I became an early user of voice-recognition software, which greatly accelerated my productivity. Nevertheless, I never received a full-time job offer.

One magazine editor who had published many of my articles invited me to interview for a staff opening. It was our first face-to-face meeting. "How would you make photocopies?" she asked after a time. "I mean, if we hired you, you'd be here to help us, not for us to help you." Needless to say, I didn't score the position.

There were no regulations then, no codes of conduct for such awkward situations. The ADA changed that. No, it didn't get me a job. I'm still an under-employed freelancer (which these days doesn't sound quite so bad). It did, however, provide cues for differentiating between essential and nonessential job tasks and identifying a "reasonable accommodation" from an "undue hardship." In short, it created a new way of thinking.

If a restaurant or store I want to go in has a six-inch-high threshold and no ramp, I now have a constructive way to address the problem, a mode of discourse beyond cursing or crying.

Perhaps most of all, though, the ADA shed a bright, exacting light on the unnecessary, unfair, and often unspoken disparities I and millions of others were silently abiding, resenting and, at best, working around. By recognizing our shared experiences of injustice, the ADA gave us more than legal recourse. It gave us validation and hope.

Today, its impact can be seen everywhere: city buses with wheelchair lifts, buildings with signs in Braille, TVs and DVDs with Closed Captioning. Able-bodied strangers are no longer likely to stare at me, mouths agape, either. Most heartening of all, young disabled people I know are growing up with a marvelous sense of belonging, entitlement and pride I never had.

Yes, we still have a long way to go to be fully valued in society. The ADA hasn't resolved all the inequities. But in redefining the terms of disability, it's made us visible, active members of society. I believe by now everyone knows we're just another aspect of human diversity, and we're here to stay.



  1. "Not for us to help you..."

    Don't do me no favors, jackass!

  2. I didn't catch the broadcast -- thanks for sharing here.