Women’s Empowerment and Disability: We Have the Law on Our Side

An illustration of Lady JusticeAnja Herrman’s well-written guest post about disability and empowerment was so, well, powerful that it got me thinking about my own journey to discovering strength in disability, too.

Before I lost my sight I was the Assistant Director at the University of Illinois Study Abroad Office. I helped college students who wanted to study overseas and arranged housing and other details for students from Britain who were spending a year at the U of I. The job entailed talking with students, checking out what programs might work for them, phoning different college departments or other universities to arrange for the transfer of college credits. I was sure I’d be able to perform these tasks without being able to see.

My boss, however, was sure I could not.

I tried proving her wrong. At first, I didn’t use a white cane or a dog. I quit driving or riding my bike, but I could still see well enough to walk to work with a walking cane (my husband Mike and I happened to have bought one as a souvenir during our honeymoon in Scotland months before, when I could still see perfectly well). As my eyesight got worse, I started making mistakes in the office. I ran into tabletops. I had to sit inches away from my computer screen to see the words. After I spilled grounds all over the floor one day while making the morning coffee, my boss took me aside and told me I wouldn’t be going to the annual convention with my colleagues that year. “You’ll embarrass the office,” she said.

That all happened in 1985. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had not been passed yet. Three months later, she terminated my contract. Fast forward to 2021. The ADA requires “reasonable accommodation” for individuals with disabilities in employment and at places of public accommodation such as retail stores, office buildings, sidewalks and movie theaters. I am totally blind now, and I use speech software to write for publications and moderate our blog. I’ve had three books published, and before COVID my Seeing Eye dog was leading me to buses and cabs to get all around Chicago to teach five different weekly memoir-writing classes for people 60 and better. With more and more seniors getting fully vaccinated, I look forward to teaching in person again soon.

We still have a long, long way to go before hiring practices are totally fair to those of us with disabilities. But ever since the passage of the ADA, things have been moving in the right direction for me and the millions of other Americans who have a disability. The wisdom and determination of all the many, many people who banded together in 1990 to get the ADA passed leaves me feeling empowered. We have the law on our side.


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