When I finished college I got a job at the Study Abroad Office at University of Illinois. During one-on-one appointments with U of I students, I’d ask what they might like to study overseas, what sort of living arrangements they wanted, did they speak a foreign language, which countries they were particularly interested in, that sort of thing. I’d describe options available to them, make phone calls to other universities If U of I didn’t offer the option they wanted, and help with paperwork to get their credits transferred. I liked the work, I was good at it, and soon I was promoted to assistant director.
and then, in 1986, I lost my sight. My contract was terminated.
The Americans with Disabilities Act wouldn’t be signed into legislation until four years later. Today, July 26,2015, the ADA is 25 years old, and while I am celebrating all the progress we have made in a relatively short amount of time, I also acknowledge we have a lot more to do. One example: it’s 25 years after the ADA was passed, and the unemployment rate among people who are blind still hovers around 75%.
Here’s my work story: After my contract at University of Illinois was terminated, I attended a residential rehabilitation center for the blind, learned Braille and taught myself to use a talking computer. I applied for a job at the Study Abroad Office again after The Americans with Disabilities Act had been passed and made it through the first round of interviews. Even with the law ON my side, though, I didn’t get hired.
My husband Mike was the lucky guy who got to read the carefully crafted rejection letter out loud to me. Not a word about disability. The reason I wasn’t hired? My lack of recent work experience.
I applied for all sorts of jobs after that. One was with an emergency hotline that took calls from people whose pets have eaten a toxic substance. I emailed them for details. My note didn’t mention I was blind, or that I used a talking computer to send the email. Their response was enthusiastic. I was invited to visit the office to apply for the job.
A friend drove me to the interview. I heard the receptionist leave her desk abruptly as my friend helped me fill out the printed application form. The woman who walked out next was not the receptionist — she had a different stride from the first, and her bracelets jangled. Rather than greeting me, this new woman launched into a speech. Forms had to be filled out with every phone call that came in, she said. Her voice was shrill. The bracelets clattered. Every word had to be documented, she said. Every word by every person who calls the hotline.
I explained how I use a talking computer. I could create digital versions of the forms, complete them on the computer, print them out. “No,” she said. “They’re legal forms. They have to be filled out by hand.” I tried to squeeze out more details, see if maybe there were workarounds. But she wouldn’t listen. That was that.
It was a law suit waiting to happen, but even today, 25 years after the ADA was passed, these law suits are the burden of the person with the disability. To bring a case against that poison control hotline I would have had to pay a lawyer, file, wait months –sometimes years –hoping the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would accept my case. I didn’t file a complaint.
When Mike spotted another want ad for that same position in the paper weeks later, I sent another email asking for another interview. No email response.
A carefully worded letter arrived soon afterwards with task descriptions, each one specifically written to make it perfectly clear that a blind person couldn’t possibly perform them. The product of a legal consultation, I was sure. I got this sort of treatment more times than I care to tell you about. I don’t take it personally anymore, but back then it was painful. And confounding.
I guess it’s the same as other bigotries. Changing the law is one thing. Changing hearts and minds is another, and slowly, slowly those hearts and minds did start to change. As ramps replaced curbs, and theatres and sports facilities added accessible seating, and buses and trains and subway cars ran automatic announcements to call out each and every stop, and handicapped stalls were added to public restrooms, well, a funny thing happened. People with disabilities started eating out at restaurants, enjoying a night out at the movies, cheering on their sports teams at games, traveling on public transportation. People got more used to being around those of us with disabilities, and that familiarity made them more willing to take a chance on hiring us.
I wrote earlier this week about the University of Illinois in Urbana hiring me as a model for art students. After that, a Presbyterian church in Champaign hired me as a volunteer coordinator. When we moved to Geneva, Ill. a minor league baseball team found a job for me in their ticket office. In Chicago, a non-profit organization took me on as their Interactive Community Coordinator, and three different organizations hired me to lead memoir-writing classes. I am grateful to the School of Art and Design at University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, McKinley Church and Foundation, the Kane County Cougars, Easter Seals National Headquarters, the City of Chicago, Lincoln Park Village, and the Center for Life and Learning for taking a chance on me. Their confidence in me has helped boost my confidence in myself.
I am also thankful to the legislators, demonstrators, advocates and lobbyists who worked so hard to get The Americans with Disabilities Act passed back in 1990. The next frontier? Bringing that unemployment rate down. Let’s keep working.