How the ADA changed my life: I think I got fired because I lost my sight

Blind justice!When I finished college I got a job at the Study Abroad Office at a university. During one-on-one appointments with  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 the university didn’t offer the option they wanted, I’d 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, a few years later in 1986, I lost my sight. My contract was terminated shortly thereafter.

The Americans with Disabilities Act wouldn’t be signed into legislation until four years later. This month is the 25th anniversary of the passage of the ADA, 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 the university 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. Forms had to be filled out with every phone call that came in, she said. Every word by every person who calls the hotline had to be documented. By hand.

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.

If you ask me, it was a lawsuit waiting to happen, but even today, 25 years after the ADA was passed, these lawsuits 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 theaters 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.

A church in Champaign, Illinois, hired me as a volunteer coordinator. When we moved to the Chicago suburbs, a minor league baseball team found a job for me in their ticket office. When we moved to Chicago, Easterseals took me on as their Interactive Community Coordinator. I am grateful to all of these employers 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.

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