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.
“Deaf President Now!”
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.”
The “ Capital Crawl” (top photo)
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.