While reporter Joseph P. Shapiro stood on a New York sidewalk in 1988, he saw a cab slow down to pick up a passenger. That same cab abruptly turned and sped away, however, when the driver saw that his potential customer was in a wheelchair.
A few days earlier, Mr. Shapiro had been asked to write about a surreal situation: The National Multiple Sclerosis Society had flown a man to New York to accept their Man of the Year award. “They had put him up in a hotel across the street from the club where he was to be feted,” Mr. Shapiro writes. “But getting across the street had been bizarrely difficult. There were no curb cuts at the end of the block, making his hotel a remote island in the middle of Manhattan. Taxicabs could not pick up the man’s heavy battery-powered wheelchair. Buses lacked wheelchair lifts. So the MS Society had hired a van with a special hydraulic lift simply to transport this man across the street.”
These and more instances caused Mr. Shapiro to realize that people with disabilities were consistently relegated to the outer edges of society. But unlike with other marginalized groups (such as women and racial minorities), this failed to create a public outcry or sense of injustice. There were no rallies or demonstrations about the lack of curb cuts or ramps. People with disabilities were simply viewed as helpless objects of pity – not victims of discrimination.
In Mr. Shapiro’s landmark book, “No Pity,” he writes about these and other events, as well as the heroes that emerged in the 1960’s and 70’s to fight for the rights of people with disabilities.
Ed Roberts (often called the father of the disability rights movement) had polio and was in an iron lung. He was initially denied admission to U.C. Berkeley in 1962, because “We tried cripples before and it didn’t work.” But Roberts was persistent and he convinced the administration to admit him and let him use the campus hospital as his dormitory. Soon, other students in wheelchairs joined him, and the group became known as the “Rolling Quads.”
The Quads helped each other throughout their college years and then extended their assistance to people with disabilities outside of campus, eventually starting the first Center for Independent Living. Soon, similar centers sprang up throughout the country.
Eleven years after Roberts was admitted into Berkeley, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This was the first federal law prohibiting disability discrimination in many businesses and programs. It also requires these entities to make reasonable efforts to accomodate people with disabilities.
But after the fanfare of passage, a strange thing happened: This seminal law was just ignored. Federal officials failed to write the regulations necessary to implement it, and it languished for years.
By 1977, disability activists had had enough. They used a common means of protest at the time – sit-ins. Groups of people gathered at government offices and simply stayed there, demanding that the law be enforced. The longest sit-in was in San Francisco and lasted for five weeks, with some of the demonstrators literally risking their lives by remaining in the building without their attendants or medication. But their efforts paid off – the regulations were implemented and the law was finally put into play.
“The San Francisco sit-in marked the political coming of age of the disability rights movement,” writes Mr. Shapiro. “Disabled people had risked arrest and their health by turning to civil rights tactics and had surprised a nation – and themselves – with their own power.”
“No Pity” documents how people like these continually strengthened the disability rights movement, ultimately leading to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. This book has received praise and awards, and has been called “The primer for a revolution” by the Chicago Tribune.
Mr. Shapiro is currently a correspondent for National Public Radio, and he continues to write about this and other significant topics. In a 2015 interview, I asked him if he ever thinks about writing another book. “I think about it every day,” he said. What would he focus on? “The same thing. The disability rights movement is ongoing.”
Note: A version of this post has already appeared on this website.