A little over half a century ago, zero federal laws made it illegal to discriminate against disabled people. Today’s accessibility accommodations in buildings and services were nonexistent. We have disability rights activist and supreme badass Judy Heumann to thank for sparking a national movement for the protection of disabled peoples’ rights that led to the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And it benefits everyone.
This year, the Americans with Disabilities Act has a thirtieth candle to blow out on its birthday cake. The ADA is the widest-ranging and most comprehensive piece of civil rights legislation ever passed in the United States, and it has become the model for disability-based laws around the world. We reached out to some of our authors to reflect on the impact of this landmark in disability history and on the ongoing fight for disability rights. We share their statements with you below.
By Ben Mattlin | In early March, an angry, dysfunctional couple spewed their venom on the Dr. Phil show. That’s not unusual. What was, however, was that the young man—Bailey—was quadriplegic and the young woman—Harley—was not. She was the principal provider of his personal care.“You can be his caregiver or you can be his lover. You can’t be both,” declared the host, whose full name is Phillip Calvin McGraw and who holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of North Texas but is not actually a medical doctor. “This won’t work,” he concluded. “One hundred out of one hundred times, this won’t work.”
By Ben Mattlin | Here’s what I know going in: Christina, sixty-two at the time we speak, is a professor of English and feminist, gender, and sexuality studies at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut, and author of the memoir A Body, Undone: Living On After Great Pain. In October 2003, she suffered a severe bicycling accident—a twig got caught in one of her spokes, sending her flying. Yes, a twig. “My chin took the full force of the blow, which smashed my face and broke the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae in my neck,” she writes. “The broken bone scraped my spinal cord.”
By Ben Mattlin: When I heard that Prof. Stephen Hawking had died, at seventy-six (March 14), my first question was, What of? The media and general public seemed to assume that his disability had finally caught up with him. Perhaps it had, but I wanted to make sure. I have a similar disability. Mine is spinal muscular atrophy type 2, a progressive neuromuscular weakness that’s practically indistinguishable from Hawking’s "motor neurone [sic.] disease," as the UK’s Guardian newspaper put it (most other sources dubbed his a form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS).
By Ben Mattlin: Back in 2012, I had the good fortune of publishing a book. That book. You know, the one able-bodied people are always telling crips to do because they’re sure it would be “so inspirational!”—in short, a memoir about growing up with a severe disability and somehow prospering. Indeed, being unable to walk or even scratch my nose hadn’t prevented me from going to Harvard. I was one of the first quadriplegics to matriculate, if not the first (bragging rights not yet fully established). It hadn’t prevented me from marrying (and staying married for twenty-six years now, and counting), having two delightful children, and forging a career as a freelance journalist. But of course, you already know all that, if you’ve read my first book.
By Ben Mattlin: In mid-October, disability-rights activists were justifiably outraged and dismayed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ latest action. According to the Washington Post, the Trump appointee had rescinded seventy-two policy documents related to the rights of students with disabilities. So heated were the reactions on social media and elsewhere that, a few days later, the Education Department tried to allay fears by explaining that the intent was merely to eliminate redundancies and outdated language. The changes, a department spokesperson said, would have zero effect on students with disabilities. But if they had zero effect, why bother?