Let's keep working: today is the 25th anniversary of the ADA

July 26, 2015 • Posted in blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind, technology for people who are blind, Uncategorized by

Blind justice!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.

Mary Rayis On July 26, 2015 at 7:46 am

Beth, I don’t think anyone fully realizes the many obstacles faced by people with disabilities in our society. Thanks for shedding light on the issue in the very important area of job opportunities.

bethfinke On July 26, 2015 at 10:19 am

You are welcome. Appreciate your use of word “obstacles” in this comment. I can tell you’re a writer, Mary — you appreciate that obstacles can be both physical and emotional.


Monna Ray On July 26, 2015 at 8:23 am

Thank Goodness, Beth, you never, you never, give up!


bethfinke On July 26, 2015 at 10:21 am

Not sure about that. I sometimes feel like I gave up by not bringing some of these cases up to the EEOC…but thanks for the compliment.


bethfinke On July 26, 2015 at 10:24 am

What a coincidence: I’m grateful for all of you writers in that class sponsored by the City of Chicago. You all know first hand that I need some accomodations, and you are all willing to pitch in. Sheila, you often remind me of the “turn your cell phone off” warning and pass out sign-up sheets and such, Audrey mans the timer for me –we all make a great team.


Doug Finke On July 26, 2015 at 9:12 am

Important message. Very well done.

bethfinke On July 26, 2015 at 10:24 am

Thanks, bro.


srshoemaker On July 26, 2015 at 11:08 am

Charlie Sweitzer & I were Pastors at McKinley Presbyterian Church on the campus of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign when we had the chance to hire Beth Finke. She was a wonderful colleague: bright & productive, a fine communicator, hard-working with a great sense of humor. We were sorry to see her move on, but were happy to write grand letters of recommendation to future employers.

bethfinke On July 26, 2015 at 11:41 am

Oh, Steve, so good to hear from you, and you are so right: hiring a person with a disability is a first step, and continuing to support them with references and recommendations later is vital, too. A big THANK YOU to you and Charlie for doing that for me, very much appreciated, and hey –it paid off!


Diana On July 26, 2015 at 12:05 pm

When I read your book and came to the part about how you were not hired for a job you were very capable of doing, but not given the chance because you were blind I had a strong reaction. People need to think different about the skills disabled people have and have an open mind. There is usually more than one way to get a job done but we are so set in believing it has to be done a certain way. You are a very bright and tenacious women. I know you make a difference in the children you come in contact with, I hope you have similar opportunities to educate adults to open their eyes to the possibilities. Being in your writing class, I have come to not think of you as blind, just a good leader who is very observant and aware of details..

bethfinke On July 26, 2015 at 2:45 pm

Oh, Diana, you are so sweet. Every once in a while in day-to-day life someone apologizes for something “visual” they’ve done. “Oh! I forgot you’re blind!” That apology is always unnecessary. Forgetting I am blind is one of the best compliments you can give me. Not that I’m ashamed to be blind, it’s just that forgetting I am blind means that the person has come to realize blindness is not the most important thing about me. I prefer people thinking of me the way you do now, Diana, after getting to know e: a good leader who is very observant and tenacious. Not sure I can claim to being aware of details, though — I often forget where I’ve put the bag of Scrabble tiles I pass around during class!


Brad On July 26, 2015 at 1:47 pm

Aside from all the important points you make in this really worthwhile blog, the lady with the jangling bracelets really got me. There is something particularly irritating about someone who wears clattering bracelets in a workplace, in a theater, or for that matter anywhere else.

bethfinke On July 26, 2015 at 2:34 pm

Wow. Who knew? Clattering bracelets. Are they just one away from “burnt-out light bulbs” on your list of annoying things at theatres, then?


bigdebbyBigdebby On July 26, 2015 at 2:27 pm

My husband has been quite successful rising to an SES position, Senior Executive Service, which is the highest civilian rank one can achieve in the Federal Government. We are aware of the poor rate of employment among those with blindness.

We were paralyzed with fear when he started going blind in his late twenties. I didn’t see how I could support us on a teacher’s salary. His brilliance, calmness and acceptance have carried him far. At no time do we take his professional success for granted.

One thing you mentioned is something that has bothered us. In the scheme of things, not of great importance. Why isn’t descriptive video standard in movie theaters? It was available at least fifteen years ago. When we lived in MD We checked out a few from the library…not recent releases! We went to a movie at a theater that had descriptive video, but only for a few viewings.

With all the technology he has benefitted from over the years…iPhone, Jaws, Victor Reader (he has 4), talking clocks & talking tape measure, on and on…why do movie theaters have ramps but no descriptive video? Isn’t lack thereof a barrier?

bethfinke On July 26, 2015 at 2:37 pm

Interesting question — Fellow blog readers: do any of you Know anything about what ADA has to say in re things like descriptive video services in movie theatres? Please comment here


bigdebbyBigdebby On July 26, 2015 at 2:38 pm

PS.. He was the Executive Officer, EO … administrative head of an institute at the National Institutes of Health. Ironically, the NIDCD, also known as the Deafness Institute. When he applied he said to me, “they will never hire me.” I then reminded him that they cannot discriminate; your resume is stellar. Of course, I was right. ( full name- National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders.)

Marilee On July 26, 2015 at 8:22 pm

Such a beautiful piece of living history. So proud of your perseverance and determination!

bethfinke On July 27, 2015 at 6:51 am

Perseverance and determination? Hmmm…wonder who I inherited those attributes from…?!


Fancy Nisher On July 27, 2015 at 7:57 am

Thanks for sharing that history. It’s incredible how people can be so “stuck in their ways”. It looks like you have perservered above the odds!

bethfinke On July 27, 2015 at 8:37 am

Above the odds for sure. Here’s hoping those odds aren’t so hard to beat in the future, and that more than 25% of people who are blind or have other disabilities are employed by the time the ADA hits the 50 year mark.


Heidi Thorsen On July 27, 2015 at 1:36 pm

It still surprises me every time I read the employment statistics for blind people – how can that be? But just spending the last few years in that world myself, I am amazed at how easy it is to be brushed aside, even by people who know you and/or are your friends. Beth, as you have so wonderfully demonstrated and shared through your writings, it takes patience and persistence. It also takes a great deal of courage, confidence, and creativity to get up again after each disappointment. Having supportive people around you as well helps to keep you going. I so enjoy how your blog Beth offers stories to support those of us who are walking that path. May we all support each other in helping to create a better world of opportunity.

bethfinke On July 27, 2015 at 9:50 pm

Amen. And *tons* of credit to the family and friends who stick with us while we work our way through this major transition. One thing I learned is that you don’t have to have a lot of these people around you, you just need to have the few people who stick with you be of high quality. I have been extremely fortunate in that regard, and from what I am learning about you, Heidi, the same is true for you. We are lucky women.


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