Carole Levine July 31, 2022
I like to think that I am pretty sensitive to those who are differently “abled”. I grew up with a pretty severe hearing loss in one ear, but it was never a visible disability, so I was never labeled unless I brought it up. But I was always sensitive to those who were not able to function in the world without assistance or assistive devices. I’m not sure why, but I always volunteered to be the “helper” if a fellow student in a wheelchair or with a walker needed an escort. I wasn’t looking for a pat on the back, but I wanted to understand and get to know these students who were often shunted off to special classes and didn’t get to mix with us “regular” students. And I learned a lot from them. An orphanage that was near our elementary school sent its students to our school and many of those kids had both mental and physical disabilities and made up the vast majority of our school’s “special education” classes.
I was in elementary school in the 1950’s and 60’s so it was a time when integrating differently abled students into “regular” classes was not often done. And I was in school in a smaller city (Dayton, Ohio) where educational experimentation was not something that was often part of the curriculum… at least not that I remember. I don’t think I was ever taught the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, a native son of Dayton (with a High School named for him), perhaps because Dunbar was Black and my schools (elementary and high school) were predominantly white. But I did notice that most of the differently abled kids in my elementary school were students of color and were also, most often from Shawn Acres, the orphanage (in those days, it was called an orphanage!) a few blocks away. Those things began to raise questions for me as I got older and matriculated into the middle school years of my K-8 elementary school.
What I witnessed, as an adolescent was the cruelty and lack of compassion within my peer group for anyone who was different from them. What I also witnessed was the inadequacy of the school staff to respond to this behavior on the part of my peers as they joked and made fun of children who were physically and mentally disabled as well as disadvantaged, so that they could not keep up with “fashion” of they day and often were out of step with the latest trends. For me, this was a real dilemma. I wanted to defend those who could not defend themselves. I wanted the adults to step forward and intervene. And yet, I also wanted to be part of the “in” groups that I had always flirted on the edges of and was just making progress in becoming one of them. Let’s just say that my inner advocate won out over following the “in” crowd! And I don’t regret the choices I made.
What I see now, is some progress, but not enough. The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed by Congress in 1990 and amended in 2008. According to the ADA National Network, it is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. The ADA gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications. When it was amended in 2008, it changed the definition of “disability.” This extended the law to private employers with more than 15 employees and considerably expanded those who would fall under these regulations, including both public and private employers. As I said, some progress. But perhaps, not yet enough.
I write this piece now because I had my own up-close and personal experience with a larger disability than my hearing loss when I broke my leg in a collision with two galivanting dogs (one of which was mine!). I was on crutches and a leg brace and could not put weight on my right leg for 6 weeks. I was lucky. I live in an elevator building and seldom had to confront stairs and figure out how to maneuver them. I did travel by air during this time as was impressed with how the airlines accommodate travelers with disabilities. We got a handicapped tag for our car which was helpful for parking when I needed to go somewhere (I could not drive myself), but now that I am mobile again and that tag is good for another few months, there is the temptation to use it… Trust me, I won’t! Too many others really need those close in spots! But this 6 weeks of true disability made me much more conscious of what it takes to make one’s way in our society when you have a disability… whether it is visible or not.
It is not a simple thing to navigate from place to place when you mobility is not “normal.” It is not an easy process to manage tasks when your brain function is not as it should be. It is not simple to complete work when you cannot see or hear as others do. But amazingly competent people with disabilities manage this every day and succeed and exceed what many of us fully abled people can do.
I have been wondering about some of my grade school colleagues who made fun of the kids from Shawn Acres when we were younger. I wonder what their attitudes are today. Have they grown with the changes in how our nation functions around those with disabilities? And my own thoughts turn to one particular Shawn Acres resident, a tall, skinny girl who was in Special Ed classes and who I would try to sit with in the lunchroom when she was all alone. Her name was Judy. She was very verbal and loved to give me hugs and to tell me that I looked just like Annette on the Mickey Mouse Club! It was the highest complement she could give! I hope that Judy was able to benefit from some of the ADA provisions. She was someone whom others shunned… but always brought a smile to my face and I loved her hugs.