When you are a child and seeking your identity, you of course look for role models. And they are everywhere – on TV, in books and in the conversations generated by those symbols.
As we slowly and often painfully learn, many of those role models are fiction and unattainable. We gradually come to realize this, but in the meantime our self-esteem can take a beating.
A lot of these often-unobtainable images involve not only outrageous beauty but sleek athleticism. Of course, the iconic Barbie doll comes to mind – dancing, surfing or roller-blading with Ken.
That’s why it was so refreshing to see that Mattel has done a “Barbie makeover.” She and similar dolls are now available in wheelchairs, prosetic legs and other bodily variations that look – like real people.
That, along with the increasing number of people with disabilities seen on television shows, magazines and even emojis, is helping to shape a sense that having a disability should not cause people to feel unworthy. On the contrary, it reminds all of us that to be different is to be human.
The Internet is indeed a mixed blessing. The good news is that there’s an amazing amount of information out there. The bad news is that there’s an amazing amount of information out there.
As an individual with multiple sclerosis, I have of course surfed the web, looking for answers. Once I learned how to separate the truthful and credible information from the wacky and even dangerous stuff, I learned a great deal.
Much the same can be said about the current confusion regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the landmark law that has literally changed the American landscape and allowed so many people with disabilities to participate in society. In my years investigating discrimination cases for the State of Oregon, I encountered a lot of this misinformation and saw how it negatively affected both employers and employees, often pitting them against each other.
Because it is so important that everyone gets it right, I’ve given a couple of examples of some of the most common areas of confusion. In future columns, I’ll try to further separate fact from fiction.
If two people are equally qualified to perform a job, the employer must hire the one with the disability.
The ADA does not require that an employer give preference to one applicant over another. The law simply requires that employers don’t discriminate against people because they have disabilities.
Part of nondiscrimination, however, is that if an employer can make changes in the way a job is performed, and this change allows the employee to perform their duties without causing undue hardship to the employer, the employer must make those changes.
Judith and Jonathan both apply for a cashier’s position at the neighborhood drug store. Judith is more experienced and the employer wishes to hire her. Because Judith has arthritis, she must sit down for at least 10 minutes every hour. There is room for a stool in the cashiering area, and Judith can perform her cashiering duties while sitting. If the employer does not hire Judith because of her arthritis, the employer has likely violated the ADA.
If an employee with a disability cannot do her job, the employer cannot fire her but has to hire someone extra or make other employees do the work.
As with anyone else, an individual with a disability does not have an automatic right to stay in a job unless she can actually perform it. But as with the above example on hiring, the employer may have to make adjustments to allow the employee to perform the job.
An office receptionist with a spinal deformity cannot sit for more than an hour or so at a time. It would probably be a reasonable accommodation for the employer to let him get up and stretch him legs for a few minutes every hour. This would allow him to do the job, and would result in little or no cost to the employer. But if his condition worsened to the point where he often had to leave his desk in the middle of customer calls and there was no one available to replace him, it would likely become an undue hardship for the employer to tolerate this situation.
The ADA challenges both employers and employees to put fresh eyes on workplace tasks and determine whether they can be done in an effective (and possibly non-traditional) way. The law also requires that employers and employees work together to determine the best way for that to happen. The net result is often a workplace where everyone feels more respected.
Michale Volpe testifying before the Oregon Transportation Commission, October 19, 2018
You probably have never thought much about that striped area alongside all disabled parking places. And you also likely haven’t noticed that quite frequently, this space is inhabited by all manner of vehicles – cars, delivery trucks, motorcycles, etc.
No need to feel guilty. There are usually no signs present, so it’s a little hard to tell what exactly that area is for. But as Michael Volpe put it to the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) last October 19, those spaces for hm are the difference between being able to leave his vehicle or being a prisoner therein until the obstruction is removed.
Michael has multiple sclerosis, and is unable to move either his arms or legs. In addition, he is legally blind and is gradually losing his ability to talk. But with the help of an assistant, he could not have expressed himself more eloquently when he told the commission of the many times he was unable to find a disabled parking place, only to find that once he did locate one, that side area was blocked by another vehicle. Therefore, he could not get his wheelchair out of his van and was essentially stuck there until the impediment was removed.
In addition to Michael, there were four or five of us at that OTC meeting. Our purpose was to urge them to vote in favor of putting “No Parking” signs in those areas.
Happily, the commission voted unanimously to enact these suggested rule changes. This will be extraordinarily helpful for Michael and other wheelchair users. It will also help him continue to travel around Oregon and do his important work, which has included serving on the State Independent Living Council and the Oregon Disabilities Commission.
As a colleague once wrote about Michael, “While [he] can no longer stand or walk and while his voice must be amplified by a microphone, Mike always stands up for the rights and well-being of others, and his voice is heard loud and clear.” Now he has a better chance of actually arriving at the places where he can talk about the rights of those with disabilities.
I won’t sugar-coat it: climbing up stairs can be exhausting, embarrassing and dangerous when you have multiple sclerosis. And of course, there’s no point in even trying if you are a wheelchair user.
That’s why the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been such a godsend to those of us with MS and other mobility impairments. More and more, we don’t have to gaze up at a store, a government building or a museum and make an instant analysis of whether getting there is worth the often tortuous journey. Thanks to the ADA, there are increasing numbers of ramps and elevators that solve the problem.
But I can’t reflect on the ADA without also mentioning the incredible people and events that made its passage possible. Here are just a few of them:
Ed Roberts, the Rolling Quads and the Independent Living Movement
Like many pioneers of the disability rights movement, Ed Roberts had polio. He was initially denied admission to U.C. Berkeley in 1962, because “We tried cripples before and it didn’t work.”
But Roberts would not be denied. He convinced the administration to admit him and allow him and his iron lung to reside in the campus hospital. 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. Similar centers soon sprang up throughout the country.
The Section 504 Sit-In
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 accommodate 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 on the books 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.
Gallaudet University, located in Washington D.C, was the first U.S. college to focus on deaf and hearing-impaired students. Its academic tranquility was uprooted, however, when the college president resigned and the board selected a hearing individual to replace him.
This so enraged the students, faculty and alumni that they gathered for a massive rally and sit-in, effectively shutting down the school until the new president resigned and a non-hearing individual was hired to replace her.
Many people were awakened to the cause of disability rights by seeing the poignant images on television of demonstrators silently waving signs that said, “deaf president now.”
As can be expected, there were many attempts to foil the final passage of the ADA. Just in case anyone needed to be reminded of the prescient law’s significance, something extraordinary happened on the day that Congress was inside the capital, ironing out its final compromises. Right outside, a virtual army of people with disabilities had thrown down their walkers and wheelchairs and proceeded to crawl up the capital steps.
More than any words could do, this symbolized the heroism and unyielding doggedness of the disability civil rights movement. All of us, whether or not we have disabilities, owe them our gratitude for moving this country closer towards true equal opportunity.