Overshadowed by speeches by Bernie, Bill and Michelle at the Democratic Convention this week came a quick and quiet talk by former Senator Tom harkin to celebrate the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act yesterday.
Harkin, who was taught sign language by his brother Frank, taught everyone in the audience the sign for “America”: put your palms together, he said, continuing by instructing the crowd of delegates to make a huge circle in front of them while their hands were together like that. “Think about it,” he said. “We are all together, no one is left out in this constant circle of life .”
The Americans with Disabilities Act hadn’t been passed yet when I started losing my eyesight in 1984. I was 25 years old then, and along with the obvious fear of going blind came the underlying fear of being left out of society if and when that happened. I went as long as I could without using a white cane or a guide dog. I quit driving or riding my bike, but I could still see well enough to walk to my job as the Assistant Director of the Study Abroad Office at a Big Ten university.
Most of my work back then involved counseling college students on study abroad options — I could have done that with my eyes closed!
As my eyesight got worse, though, I started making mistakes in the office. I still remember spilling grounds all over the floor on my way to make the morning coffee. I had to sit close to my computer screen to see the words. I ran into tabletops.
At some point my boss took me aside and told me I wouldn’t be going to the annual convention with my colleagues. “You’ll embarrass the office,” she said. Months later, my contract was terminated.
I celebrated the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) yesterday right along with Sen. Harkin. The landmark federal legislation was passed five years after I lost that job. Designed to improve access to services and employment opportunities, it was intended to eliminate illegal discrimination and level the playing field for people like me who live with disabilities.
I am totally blind now, and I use speech software for my part-time job moderating a blog for easterseals. I’ve had two books published, and have another one on the way. I record pieces for public radio from time to time, and I lead four different memoir-writing classes for older adults in Chicago every week.
It’s true we have a long, long way to go before hiring practices are totally fair to those of us who can’t see, use wheelchairs, or have a myriad of other disabilities. Things are moving in the right direction, though, and thanks to the wisdom and determination of Sen. Harkin and the many people who banded together to get the ADA passed 26 years ago, we have the law on our side.