The Hidden Story of
How the Americans with Disabilities Act Gave
The Largest U. S. Minority its Rights
Lennard J. Davis
Those of us who are disabled and have been so for some time, were able to welcome the coming of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And over the past quarter-century, we have come to enjoy the ramps and curb-cuts and special parking areas and the chance to come and go as you do, as we please, on our crutches, in our wheelchairs, on our gurneys. Thank you thank you America for giving us the chance to join you at the table, that rich table filled with American goodies: food aplenty, the household gizmos and computers and cars with their varieties of ramps and hand controls and special equipment that tells us that we are at one with the rest of America, enjoying the fruited plains with liberty and justice for all.
And here Lennard J. Davis will tell you, in intricate detail, how the ADA came into being, give you pictures of those who brought the baby out of the dark womb where she had been hidden for so long, into the warm crib of equality. I am now at one with all those walkies who can get from here to there with so little (apparent) effort.
Also, in the birth of ADA, we should thank Wade Blank --- feisty, longhaired minister --- and Judy Heumann, protesting in the streets of New York in 1972, and Justin Dart with boots and that big cowboy hat, that big laugh, that big bladder hanging under his wheelchair, wagging back and forth, threatening at any moment to bust open to flood the streets of Washington with pure Dart-water.
Also Patrisha Wright working with an alternative hospital with people with severe disabilities, and one day she came to work, and they, those who run those places, called her in, and said that "one of the residents was found in bed with another one of the residents."
My explanation was, "Far fuckin' out!" and that the program was a success. At that point, they fired me.
And then there's Bob Funk from Defiance, Ohio, and his Disabled Paralegal Advocacy Program. Once in Berkeley, one of us was kicked out of a restaurant because we were scaring the paying customers, that's how funny-looking we were. And DPAP sued, and won. Leaving the message that if your customers scare easily, that's your problem, not ours.
And Judy and Fred Fay and Eunice Fiorito and Ed Roberts, coming up with the idea of organizing. We are in our wheelchairs and gurneys and hand-operated cars all across America, and they thought that maybe we should organize, because we are, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, some 56.7 million strong --- 19 percent of the population, "with more than half of us reporting the disability was severe."
That's a ton of us creeping and crawling about, sometimes getting in your way, freaking people out, getting the kids to yanking on their mothers' dresses and pointing. Once in a dark bar in Frankfurt, Germany, I was happy and drunk with my third big cream-foamed tankard of stout, but the people didn't seem to want me there --- moving to the other end of the bar, turning their backs --- you just feel these things, so I went to leave, and did so. Although it may have been something else, because I heard, as I edged out the door, someone repeating "Juden, Juden."
Ed Roberts, oh don't forget him, and the first ILC, the Berkeley Independent Living Center, where those of us who were vexed by apartments with stairs, houses with no ramps, gas and bus stations with these tiny little doors to get into the bathroom, try getting your twenty-four inch wide wheelchair through a twenty-inch door. It can't be done and you think that you're going to pee in your pants again.
Ed Roberts, Mary Lou Breslin, Lex Frieden, Pat Morrissey. I thank you and this author doesn't forget you, nor do we forget Mike Auberger and Bob Kafka and Mike Ervin, crowding the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building to chant at Congressman Paul Ryan for trying to gut Medicaid, or, later the next day, out front, with dozens of buddies dropping their crutches or dropping out of their chairs onto their asses, "to crawl up the eighty-two steps of the Capitol Building."
At the same time, they were blocking buses here and there, these ADAPT folks, the ones that Davis calls "the Hell's Angels of the Disability movement,"
speeding around on wheelchairs rather than Harleys, wearing headbands, blocking non-accessible buses, and chasing transportation executives around town.
"Getting arrested was their red badge of courage."
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Lennard J. Davis has a story to tell, but it does get a little ponderous as we wind our way not in front of but deep in the middle of the backrooms of Congress. If you ever want to learn how a new effort for personal rights in the country must edge its way through the American legislative system, you are well off studying Enabling Acts.
But, as I say, it does get a little turgid towards the middle . . . so that when we got half-way through the book, we may be looking at our watches and wondering if it isn't time to feed the cats and turn on the front-porch lights.
Because Davis has decided to concentrate on how the ADA, this mother of all legislation, got in the door, through the halls, and finally, out into the statute books. For this, he has chosen to include the minuscule details of Congressional procedure, the very tedious world that would drive you bananas just beginning to start thinking of forming the idea of understanding it.
So this may better be seen as a guide-book for anyone who wants to learn the way things work in Washington, where the wheels grind exceedingly slow, and exceedingly fine . . . and in the process, some may think, threaten to grind us all to death.
§ § §
My main complaint with Davis' book is not what he takes up to explain to us the Birth of the Bill. Rather, it is to complain about what he missed, and what he missed worst of all by ignoring history, ignoring one of the people who made ADA possible in the first place. In fact, the one person, who fifty years ago saw most clearly the ignorance of the non-disabled in the United States, missing what you and I and the rest of us have to put up with on a day-to-day basis.
The one I speak of is Hugh Gallagher who wrote an excellent, enlightening biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It's about what FDR did for all of us disabled. And how he did it, and thus how he screwed us, if you think about it, screwed us to the wall.
FDR's Splendid Deception tells how Roosevelt and his family and his aides believed that the only way he could survive political life in America was by playing dumb. Or more accurately, by making the rest of America play dumb, a mechanism that involved pretending that he was not disabled.
The book lays bare the elaborate way that FDR and his family and the Secret Service and ultimately, the entire U. S. Government, with the coöperation of all the media, did not ever mention that this was a man who could only stand with assistance, could only "walk" by being lifted up bodily by his elbows and carried in this erect position his legs trailing down, this man smiling all the while he was being spirited up the podium. A man who could tell the press photographers as he was getting into his car, "No pictures of me getting into the machine, boys." And no pictures were taken, and if someone slipped up, the Secret Service took the camera, pulled out the film, and handed the camera back to the offender.
This was our disabled non-disabled president. This was the inspiration for those of us who came after: viz, let us pretend nothing is amiss.
§ § §
But Hugh Gallagher did not just write books about Roosevelt and disability. He did something astonishing in the midst of a government and a people that did not seem to know or to care. He was working at the time --- the 1960s, the early 1970s --- for Bob Bartlett, Senator from Alaska. What happened to Gallagher was familiar to all of us who use wheelchairs. Like us, he often couldn't get somewhere to do what had to be done.
He was working as legislative assistant in the Senate Office Building. When he drove into the garage, he got himself out of his car, into his wheelchair, but always had to wait for someone to come along to help him up the curb, so he could wheel himself into his office (apparently one of his helpers was Senator Wayne Morse; another was Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. "Very shy," said Gallagher.)
Once in his office, there was the problem of the bathroom. There were several there in the SOB, but they were replete with steps. And the doors on the stalls were narrow, very narrow.
"Here I was," said Gallagher, "working on some fairly complicated issues of national importance, and when I had to take a pee, I had to do it in a coffee can. There at my desk."
He found this intolerable, and once he had told Bartlett, together they managed to cook up a bill, in 1968, that came to be known as the "Architecture Barriers Act."
Quite simple, really. It said that any structure designed, built, altered, or leased with Federal funds in whole or in part had to be accessible to those of us on crutches or in wheelchairs.
And Gallager and Bartlett were careful to frame the act as a civil rights issue. Not as a pity issue: that doesn't make good law. No, they insisted that the disabled must have the same rights as the non-disabled when it comes to getting from here to there.
Davis spends time, probably too much time, telling us that the key to the ADA was that for the first time ever, disability rights were seen as civil rights. Where he errs is in claiming that the ADA was original in this. Wrong: the civil rights angle was introduced twenty-five years previously in the Architecture Barriers Act. Gallagher knew that any other approach would fail. This was the 60s, right? The idea of civil rights was hot. So hot, they could even knock down some barriers that were not just people prejudice barriers.
§ § §
Gallagher once told me how the Barriers Act got through Congress. I was sort of dumb about how things happened in Washington. I just thought that they would write up a bill and stick it in the hopper and one day it would come up for vote and the Senate and the House would vote on it and if it worked, they would send it to the President and he would sign it into law.
No. What they did is to ask around the Capitol to find out if anyone had a problem with it --- asking the drones, the quite powerful legislative assistants both in the Senate and in the House (who had the ears of their bosses). Evidently no one could think of any reason not to do it, so Bartlett did a bit of horse-trading over the next few months --- I'll vote for your baby if you'll help me with this one --- and when it came up, without any fanfare in the Senate, it passed purely on voice vote and, as Gallagher said (they'd done their homework there), "they shouted it through the House." Someone had evidently gotten an OK from the legislative assistants in Lyndon Johnson's White House and it was signed into law August 12, 1968. There it was, in contradistinction to the ALA: introduced, voted on, passed, and signed with absolutely no foo-foo-raw (it was scarcely mentioned in newspapers and magazines of the day). Since no one could think of any reason to oppose it, it became law the next year.
Too bad that Davis didn't take the time nor the trouble to look up the history of this astonishingly fast passage of a very important civil rights bill. Hell, it's too bad he didn't call me when he was wading through that creaking mountain of paper as he was gluing together Enabling Acts. I might have had a few things to say to fill his ears, maybe make them bleed.
If he had only asked.--- L. W. Milam