Thirty Years after Covering the Signing of the ADA
Blend in. Stand out. Those were the two seemingly dichotomous goals driving me on July 26, 1990. Always, as a blind person, I wanted to find some level of obscurity, to be just one of the herd. And, always, as a writer, I wanted my work to stand out, stand up, be stellar and noteworthy as topnotch writing.
The fact that I was here at all, on the White House south lawn on this gorgeous July morning, was the result of one more struggle.
President George Bush was signing into law the world’s first sweeping civil rights bill for people with disabilities. The ADA, as we would call it, mandated that restaurants and concert halls and schools and amusement parks had to treat every American equally. It was nobody’s business if you took a guide dog or a sign language interpreter to college; nobody’s business if you used a white cane or an orthopedic cane to attend a job interview.
When President Bush said to let the wall of exclusion come tumbling down, I knew I was not the only one to feel goose bumps and a visceral affirmation of belonging. We were all ecstatic to be part of this moment, to see this glorious future unfolding.
Three years earlier, my pitch for a column on disability rights had been accepted by the Cincinnati Enquirer. While I had worked past the point of needing to hide my blindness, I had no intention of showcasing it either. I didn’t want to write a vapid weekly treatise on blindness or an insipid Q&A on how to get a handicapped parking card or a device for magnifying print. I admired tough, clear communicators populating op-ed pages. My intent was to write opinion, mixed with news and information, about all disabilities. To do that, I needed to immerse myself not only in blindness – which I’d been living since age five – but in deafness and quadriplegia and dyslexia and Down syndrome. I needed to hang out with and understand people who had Parkinson’s and bipolar disorder, chronic asthma, and multiple sclerosis.
That immersion led to decades of firsts, and this date, July 26, 1990, was among the first of the firsts.
Ecstatic upon receiving the invitation, I approached our new editor. He refused to send me to Washington. Undaunted, I took my request to the publisher – who loved it.
This editor didn’t like me or the beat I represented, but he was stuck.
“We’ll send you,” he said, “but you can’t possibly get a page 1 story. You’re blind. You’d have no way of writing/transmitting it. Just call me and tell me the facts. I’ll write it.”
I pretended not to hear.
This was 1990. No laptops or iPhones. No ubiquitous email and internet.
No one had done what I wanted to do. Still, there was no way I was going to hand off this opportunity of a lifetime to an editor who didn’t even like me or the people I represented. No way would anyone but me write my story. I would figure something out.
I don’t remember the flight from Cincinnati to Washington. I don’t remember the taxi to the hotel or even which hotel it was.
I do remember the electricity in the air as we milled about, eventually taking seat in that gigantic crowd on the White House south lawn.
My senses were hyper-tuned, alert to every nuance around me and every camera click, wheelchair motor whir, and guide dog chain jingling.
I had to catch every word I could, every sidebar conversation, and the historic phrasing of our president.
The crowd was 3,000 strong. There were guide dogs and white canes and wheelchairs and crutches. There were politicians and press, interpreters and personal care assistants.
Later, standing in line to get a quote, I was suddenly aware of a guy in my face.
With that cloyingly patronizing tone we have all come to know and loath, he said, “I’m with Knight Ridder. How do you feel about this exciting law?"
Clearly, he thought I was one of the metaphorically unwashed, another “crip” or “blink” who might have a quotable quote.
“I’m from the Cincinnati Enquirer, a Gannett paper,” I replied, “and I think it’s great. How about you?”
If he’d had a tail, it would have been tucked. He for sure disappeared into the crowd without a word.
I got my quote. I got my taxi back to the hotel. Alone, I wrote my story on a Braille ‘n Speak, connected it to the dial-up modem I’d brought with me, and connected said modem to the hotel phone line to send my story to the paper. It was on page 1 the next morning, and no one had tampered with a word of it.
Oddly, it did not occur to me at all that day – but only later with that clearest of hindsight that, while I was by no means the only blind person there, I was for sure the only one sent by a major metropolitan daily to get a page 1 story.
Today, thirty years later, there still might well be only one blind journalist at any landmark event, and there still might well be professionals who condescend to that blind journalist as less-than, rather than as an equal.
Before the law, I knew that it was up to me to get the story and to make it a story worth reading. The shimmering promise offered by the ADA needs each of us to work, with confidence and competence, to make it a law worth celebrating.