I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. As the air escaped from my lungs, my mind was reeling from what I had just heard. Since I was considering a particular degree program for graduate school, I was a little unsure of myself, trying to navigate my way into a career that reflected my passions. Because I knew I wanted to work with people with disabilities, I thought having a conversation with the Director of Disabled Student Services on campus might give me some direction and food for thought. After I asked what I considered to be some pretty intelligent questions, I was interrupted.
“I don’t think you will ever get a job, Lorraine. But you are disabled and a female, I’m sure somebody will feel sorry for you.”
One of the reasons I had decided to attend that particular university starting in 1987 was because it had a national reputation for being accessible to people with all kinds of disabling conditions. The compactness of the campus made getting to classes in my wheelchair manageable, and the fact that I needed extra time to write on essay tests due to my limited finger dexterity was easily accommodated. For decades this university had prided itself on meeting the needs of students who had various challenges. It was hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that the Director of Disabled Student services didn’t think I was employable. I left his office feeling like Charlie Brown after Lucy took away the football. I struggled to get out the door before the tears took over.
It didn’t feel fair. I could live with the fact that I would never drive and would always need caregivers, but a job? I always expected that having a job would make me feel a little bit like everyone else.
When I got back to my dorm room that day, I did a lot of soul-searching. Looking back, I was not entirely hopeless. I had held a few summer jobs before. In order to gain some work experience in junior high school, I answered phones and did some office work for the church attended. There was also a summer that I was a counselor at a camp for children and adults with disabilities. At each position, I had to be creative in figuring out ways to complete some of the duties assigned to me. Some things I needed were out of reach, and some places I needed to be, did not have ramps at the entrance. That was the way the world had always been.
A few months later, on July 26th, 1990, I was at my parent’s house watching the late news. The major story of the day was that George W. Bush had signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act, which meant that government agencies, public transportation, and places of public accommodation like businesses, restaurants, and schools had to be accessible to those of us with disabilities. I was particularly excited that the ADA included a section on employment, which said that if a candidate for a job is qualified for that job, employers cannot refuse to hire them because of their disability.
After President Bush signed the law he said: “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” Maybe there was some hope after all.
In the years since the passage of the ADA, I have had some significant health issues that prevent me from working full time. However, I regularly post to a blog that I love, which is about my experience living with a disability. It has been an honor to have been published numerous times and to write for online magazines and United Cerebral Palsy’s national website on occasion.
I got an email the other day from the editor of a magazine that explores issues, people and places specific to our hometown. He asked me if I would be interested in taking over a column called “Hometown Heroes.” The column highlights people who are doing good things in our community. It was right up my alley. In my response, I expressed my one concern.
“Nathan, I know that interviewing people goes a million times better when a reporter does so in person, and I know that private homes aren’t always accessible. Would it be OK with you, and do you think it would be OK with whoever I would be interviewing to ask them to meet me in a public place for the interview? I would also probably always have a caregiver with me.”
His simple, direct reply came early the next morning. “Lorraine, if anybody you interview is not willing to meet in a place that is the most accessible and comfortable for you, I would have trouble profiling them as a hometown hero.”
Well. Alrighty then.
The polar opposite attitude of this editor compared to the Director of Disabled Student Services of the college I attended was like the difference between an iceberg and ice cream. The Americans with Disabilities Act has been on the books for the last 25 years. That means for the first time in history there is a generation of people who grew up in a world where they don’t know anything different than inclusion. This editor who communicated with me a few days ago understood that I was entirely capable of doing the writing he was asking of me. Whatever adjustments were necessary for me to accomplish the task were okay with him, and he expected them to be okay with members of the community as well. When I had an appointment with him in his office to discuss details, he met me outside so he could show me where the accessible entrance to the building was.
Accessible parking places make my life easier, as do larger restrooms and wider doorways when I go out in public. However, I will always consider the change in perception of people with disabilities to be the greatest achievement of the ADA.