Dec 1 2011

Lives Worth Reporting in the Disability Rights Movement

A history still unfolding—and largely unheeded

Lives Worth Living - PBSLives Worth Living, an independent documentary on the U.S. disability rights movement that aired recently on PBS, traces the emergence and growth of activism through the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act—a fact noted in a respectful New York Times review (10/26/11) that was all the notice big media appeared to take of the film, billed as the first such treatment of this crucial social justice movement.

The Times Neil Genzlinger noted in closing that the “impact” of the ADA, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications, is “still being sorted out.” True enough. Just days before, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had airily dismissed a Justice Department lawsuit over the city’s taxicabs, less than 2 percent of which are wheelchair accessible, violating the ADA.

Accessible taxis are uncomfortable and potentially unsafe for “the average person,” Bloomberg explained (Daily News, 10/20/11), and besides, “if you’re in a wheelchair, it’s really hard to go out in the street and hail down a cab and get it to pull over,” so a better way is “a service where you call and we will send designated cabs that are wheelchair-accessible.” He had ready words for those who thought that sounded like something less than equal access (Disability Scoop, 10/24/11): “It’s always somebody who says, ‘Oh, no, everything has to be handicapped-accessible, or wheelchair-accessible,’ but that’s not necessarily what the people that are in wheelchairs need.”

Quantitative evidence of the gulf between the ADA’s intent and the reality of people with disabilities comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which shows an unemployment rate for people with disabilities that is twice that of the non-disabled population (16.1 percent vs. 8.5 percent, as of September 2011). As Ann Belser notes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (10/27/11), one of a handful of outlets, mostly regional, to engage the issue, those numbers bury the lead of the discrepancy: “While nearly 70 percent of the non-disabled population of the U.S. takes part in the labor force, only 21 percent of the disability community does.”

The recession and general job loss are certainly factors, but those journalists who report the story beyond the numbers identify something else: “I would suggest that the primary barrier is a lack of familiarity with the abilities that persons with disabilities possess, and the perception that if an individual is a person with a disability, they can’t do the job,” an employment agency supervisor told the Colorado Springs Gazette (9/9/11).

A frustrated job-seeker told the Chicago Tribune (10/28/11) that “overcoming disability is a whole lot easier than overcoming prejudice or discrimination or whatever you want to call it,” noting how employers’ reception chilled when he went from walking, with a paralyzed right leg, to using a scooter: “Someone that’s not standing eye level…for whatever reason…unless they are very open-minded, you don’t get the same kind of acknowledgement.”

The Post-Gazette pointed to “discriminatory hiring practices because of mistaken notions that [people with disabilities] will cost the company money,” countering with an employment advocate who notes that most accommodations are actually very low-cost, sometimes “as inexpensive as screen-reading software and a clear aisle to the bathroom.”

Reporting that debunks such misinformation is still rare, with many stories stuck in the mold of the New York Post’s recent “Blind Ambition” (10/15/11). Reading against his better judgment past a lead about “Wall Street’s blind bombshell,” disability blogger William Peace (Bad Cripple, 10/16/11) was unsurprised by the paper’s excitement that “despite being legally blind, the bullish beauty works on the equity trading floor of JP Morgan Chase”—because, in Peace’s words, “people who are legally blind are not expected to hold a job and certainly not a job that involves responsibility.”

Also standard issue was the emphasis on the employers’ largesse: “She is surrounded by three massive 24-inch computer monitors—twice the size of her colleagues screens’—to track the market, has large colorful stickers affixed to her keyboard to make out letters, and uses text-to-speech software to read her emails which are fed to her through headphones.” JP Morgan, in this vision, isn’t complying with federal law, at relatively low cost, but bending over backwards so the poor woman can work—or, wait, not so much a woman as an “incredible example of fortitude.”

Enough, says Peace. Rather than another profile of someone succeeding “against all the odds,” we need a discussion of why the odds are so bad.

That’s been the push of the disability rights movement: to shift the conversation from one about “accommodation” to one of simple justice. Had media not largely overlooked Lives Worth Living, more might have heard the words of veteran ADAPT organizer Bob Kafka, who says of early transportation protests: “We didn’t want separate paratransit. We wanted for people to be able to go to the bus stop like everybody else and get on a bus.”

Hear that, Mayor Bloomberg?