What it Was Like to Graduate Before the Americans with Disabilities Act

A crowd of graduatesIt’s that time of year — friends and family are gathering to celebrate the new graduates in their lives. Some of the Millennials who are graduating — and all graduates from Generation Z — have no concept of life before curb cuts on sidewalks and Braille on elevator buttons. Accessible design is so common now that even older generations hardly remember public buildings that didn’t have wheelchair ramps.

That’s why I was so pleased to read an op-ed piece in the Chicago Tribune this week by author Steve Fiffer. Fiffer has written more than a dozen nonfiction books, including the memoir Three Quarters, Two Dimes, and a Nickel: A Memoir of Becoming Whole.

Fiffer graduated from law school in 1976, 14 years before the American’s with Disabilities Act was passed. Paralyzed from the neck down as a result of a wrestling injury during his senior year in high school, Fiffer was told he would never walk again but ended up moving from wheelchair to crutches. By the day he was set to graduate from University of Chicago Law School in 1976 he could maneuver with just a cane. “There was just one problem,” he writes in the op-ed. “On this sunny June day 14 years before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, no one — myself included — had considered whether the graduation venue would be accessible to an American with a disability.”

Fiffer and his classmates were instructed to meet 30 minutes before the ceremony in the basement of what he describes as “one of the campus’ most iconic and least accessible edifices — stately, Gothic, elevator-free, lift-free, ramp-free Rockefeller Chapel”. He describes arriving in plenty of time to navigate the twelve stairs to the basement: “Left foot down. Cane down. Right foot down. Cane down. Rest. Repeat.” From the article:

“At the appointed time, we lined up in alphabetical order, Mr. Adams to Ms. Zelinsky. On cue, Mr. Adams and the others snaked to the stairway I’d just come down. On cue again, Mr. Adams moved with deliberate haste up the stairs. Ms. Agnew followed his precedent, then Mr. Allen and Mr. Atherton.

I quickly realized there was no way I would be able to keep up with the 20 or so classmates ahead of me as they climbed the stairs and continued on the outside route.”

Spoiler alert: Steve Fiffer did indeed receive his law degree that day, but if you want to know how he managed it, you’re going to have to link to the Chicago Tribune article to find out.


 

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