John Hockenberry on Twenty Years of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Monday, July 26, 2010 - 12:00 AM

I think it odd that I am actually seriously celebrating and thinking about the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities act. As a man who has spent well over half of his life in a wheelchair with a permanent spinal cord injury I can say that my feelings about this landmark law have generally been negative.

For instance, the law famously began as a civil rights act enforced by alleged victims filing lawsuits to force compliance in individual cases. I wonder if racial desegregation in education would have happened at all if Governor George Wallace had confronted a civil complaint instead of the National Guard on the steps of the University of Alabama back in 1963. The ADA was sadly bereft of enforcement teeth when it was passed 20 years ago. There have been phased upgrades that have produced some improvements in certain kinds of workplace accommodations and in particular, the IDEA law has bolstered equality for disabled students since its passage in 2004. In general, though, the ADA’s quiet, seemingly ad hoc effort to achieve a justice and equality that I found absolutely clear and imperative in my life has been frustrating. 

Full of opt-outs and exclusions for accommodations that were “undue burdens” to small businesses or anyone who thought the expense of making places accessible from the moment of its passage, energy was poured into finding ways around the law. The language of the ADA seemed to invite it. Inaccessible transit systems fought the law. My favorite exclusion was churches: Religious institutions were exempt from making their buildings welcoming to people who might want to hear stories of Jesus making the blind see or the crippled walk. Blah blah blah. But hey, slave owners were exempt from the U.S. Constitution’s vague notions of liberty in 1789. 

Almost immediately there was conservative pushback that characterized the ADA as an excuse to flood the courts with frivolous lawsuits. The whole Tort Reform movement of the GOP never failed to find a juicy ADA example to show how the federal government was needlessly meddling in local communities, who could be trusted to do the right thing with “their crippled people.” I remember, while working at NBC, watching as everyone jumped on this utterly silly story of someone who complained about an inaccessible restroom at a hotel in Carmel, California, owned by tough guy Clint Eastwood. He got more press about the PC police than he did for some of his films. These stories persisted, despite the extreme statistical unlikelihood that any ADA case would come to trial. The patronizing language fighting a law that had few teeth was hurtful and disheartening. The jokes about Special Ed. and Handicapped parking spaces (Obama even made a special ed joke one time that he had to retract) belittled the whole equality movement, when they weren't being overtly insulting. 

We had “made it” (disabled folks, that is) in the era of the ADA when it became open season to joke about disabled people in film and on TV, e.g. "There's Something About Mary" and its wheelchair sight gags, "South Park" and its "Timmy" character, among others. Then, when someone said something about the jokes, cable news would rail against the politically correct. I was even on Bill Maher’s show one time and discovered, while on the air, that I was booked to simply respond to a question about why disabled people were all bent out of shape about the FDR memorial barely mentioning that this President used a wheelchair. I said to Bill that if you were a father who used a wheelchair, wouldn't it be nice to show your children the memorial for the president who was also disabled? It had nothing to do with political correctness. The line didn’t get a laugh. No one had a clever rejoinder. Bill changed the subject. I was never invited back. 

Empowerment means, among other things, being noticed. Just as victims cannot choose their injustice, they cannot expect to choose how they land on the political stage. Laws start a process, at best. But over the last 20 years, the ADA has started an enormously important process of defining inclusion in a fundamentally new way in America. Without the complexities of this nation's racial and ethnic narratives that have made it so challenging to even evaluate the significance of Obama’s African American presidency, the ADA strips away the idea of inclusion to an essential truth. Do we want certain kind of people to be excluded from mainstream life or not? It's not much more complicated than that. 

In 20 years the people who have decided they would rather not comply with the ADA are revealed to be people who don’t want certain kinds of people in their businesses or institutions. At the same time a much larger culture of compliance with the ADA has had an impact on architecture, diversity in education and the way we think of accessible commercial spaces as more modern and welcoming for all. The marketing numbers bear this out.  The inaccessible space is becoming as outrageous as a “whites only” sign on a swimming pool or a “blacks only” sign on a drinking fountain. The ADA has also created a culture of public sector entrepreneurs who assist businesses becoming ADA compliant, advocates who assist disabled workers and students seeking services and accommodations. These advocates generally work within government-supported service institutions; there are regional ADA compliance and consulting centers all over the country. Models of government advocating for citizens outside of the court system could provide important lessons way beyond disability.

So call me a grump. Call me late to the party. I have to say that after 2 decades, it’s "Happy Birthday, ADA," from this beneficiary. There’s a long way to go, but in my rear view mirror I can see how far we’ve come.

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Comments [4]

Robbie Spears from Lake Charles,La

good morning sir. I have a selfish request and hope that you do not mind. If you do just ignore me. I was a young man in New York working security at Armani Exchange when some one in a wheel chair was trying to access the store. If I remember correctly I was helpful but could not provide an unassisted entry. Turned out this was to be part of news story by you.Now my father has to use a wheelchair but not paralyzed and for the most part people accomodating but I do notice the glares. I was looking for the video online to see if my younger self had that same look. I told you this was selfish. If you can satisfy my curiousity and/or my insecurity with news clip I would be very grateful.Thank you and have a great day

Oct. 22 2011 05:41 PM
Roy Nilson from ma

One section of the ADA outlines accessiblity guidelines. Federal agency web sites are required to follow them and do. Trouble is, most web site designers have never heard of them and so do not use the guidelines. Many newspapers do not use them either. Some 16 percent of Americans are visually impaired in some way. I have asked my state Senator (MA) to propose legislation that requires all grant recipients to certify that they are aware of the guidelines and try to follow them (not that hard) It would be useful if trade associations told their members to do so as well. It's just good common sense (and good web design)

Jul. 26 2010 09:34 AM
Amy Berg from Brooklyn, NY

About 2 yrs. ago my declining vision forced me to begin using a cane to get around. I have retinitis pigmentosa, a retinal condition resulting in gradual degeneration of the retinal. I have lived 56 years as an able-bodied person, but since I've started using the cane, it has been a real eye-opener (excuse the pun). I have had mostly good experiences with people who want to "help" me. But there are people who cannot accept my "no thank you" and cop an attitude. Just the other day a man tried to grab my metro card to swipe it for me and when I resisted he said, "Okay, that's it. You're on your own." in a denigrating tone. Then, as I went through the turnstile, I heard him say to another person, "They want our help and when we try to help them, they don't want it." The person listening said "Uh-huh" in agreement. "They" - what does that mean?! "They" - the disabled - and somehow second-class citizens? Just then a woman asked me for directions in the subway. She saw me as a person capable of answering her question, despite my disability. Everyday now I am forced to navigate this "brave new world". I have always been a fan of John Hockenberry - his vast knowledge combined with his great sense of humor make for compelling radio. I deeply respect him all the more for what he has achieved while navigating the world as a so-called disabled person. How he has kept his sense of humor is simply amazing to me. Kudos! And I'm a complete fan of the Takeaway!

Jul. 26 2010 08:32 AM
mike r. in maine from maine...

somehow I knew there would be an awesome ADA blog even if John is still on vacation. Gotta say as a part-time wheelchair user, Hockenberry is right on the money. Happy 20 years of the ADA guy, I think it's turned out to be a positive thing...

Jul. 26 2010 07:13 AM

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