(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series on the Americans with Disabilities Act 30th anniversary.)
In the late 1980s, white cane in hand, I walked from my office in Manhattan to grab a burger for lunch at McDonald’s. “Sorry, ma’am,” the guy behind the counter said, “blind people can’t eat here.”
After I said I wouldn’t leave until I was served, I was allowed to order. The cheeseburger was delicious! But there wasn’t much I could do to hold McDonald’s legally accountable for its attempt to exclude me because of my disability.
Why am I telling you this story? Because, 30 years ago this month, life changed for people like me. On July 26, the Americans with Disabilities Act became law. From the moment that President George H.W. Bush signed the landmark legislation, there was hope for the one in five Americans, queer and non-queer, with disabilities.
Restaurants and hotels could turn us away. Hospitals could refuse to provide sign language interpreters for deaf patients. A library (as had once happened to me) could tell us that we shouldn’t be out in public alone. But though the discrimination would be hurtful or even life-threatening, we could fight back with the ADA.
I’ll never forget hearing Bush at the ADA signing say, “Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down!”
At that moment, a feeling of power began to bubble within me. The struggle would be long – we’d lose battles along the way. But, we had a legal weapon in our fight for justice.
Sometimes, I almost forget what it was like before the ADA. Until memories come back. My (late) mother, who had diabetes, was part of the World War II generation. She worked as a lab technician when my Dad was in veterinary school. She didn’t disclose her disability to her employer, and said, “If I did I would have been fired.”
I wish I could tell you that with the ADA the walls of exclusion had totally tumbled down. That ableism with its prejudice and lack of disability accessibility had completely melted away. That the LGBTQ community had left its ableism behind to welcome and celebrate queer and disabled folk. If only.
The ADA, in many ways – from curb cuts to closed captioning – that have transformed the landscape for disabled and non-disabled people. (Think moms and dads pushing their babies in strollers over curb cuts. Turning on closed-captioning when you’re watching TV in a noisy place.)
Yet, 70 percent of people with disabilities of working age are unemployed.
“If history is a guide, one of the surest ways to get an Oscar is by being a non-disabled person playing a disabled character,” the New York Times said in its series of articles marking the ADA 30th anniversary.
Some 80 percent of characters with disabilities on TV were played by non-disabled actors, according to a report released by the Ruderman Family Foundation released early this year. How ironic, when most of us either are disabled, have a loved one with a disability or will likely to become disabled as we age.
The fear of disabled people – the desire to keep us hidden away, closeted — is similar to how society historically viewed LGBTQ people. “The psychological longing to keep disabled bodies invisible– much as with trans bodies – is still so strong, Sheila Black, co-editor of the anthology “Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability,” said in an email.
Yet, there’s hope! Visibility for disabled people, queer and non-queer, is increasing. Ali Stoker, an actress with a disability, won a Tony in 2019 for her role of Ado Annie in “Oklahoma.” Ryan O’Connell, a gay actor and writer with cerebral palsy, is editing season 2 of the fab Netflix series “Special.”
The LGBTQ community is beginning to become inclusive toward its queer and disabled members. More gatherings have sign language interpreters. Festivals, such as OutWrite, are having readings and performances by disabled writers and artists. “There’s been a greater awareness of our existence,” Raymond Luczak, editor of “QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology,” emailed me, “We just have to be steadfast and remind them, ‘Hey, we’re here.’”
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.