I was 16 the first time I felt discrimination. The school board was hiring teenagers for summer office work, and I knew I could get the job. I had been elected twice to student council, was a member of the National Honor Society, could type 80 words a minute and had good telephone manners.
But the high-school principal — the same one who had sought publicity for his school because I was in it — had given my father a heads-up: Blind girls need not apply.
I was a white kid in the suburbs, but I knew in that instant why I had so much empathy for black Americans in the civil rights movement. I learned that day and would know again and again — throughout college, graduate school, careers, parenthood and a multitude of occasions when I least expected it — the sting of being discounted, diminished, always for a trait I am unable to change.
When I began my career as a freelance writer, that personal life lesson led me to cling tenaciously to one rule: sell all stories through the mail or over the phone. To let the proverbial cat out of the bag might put an end to my newfound publishing success.
Even when I finally began meeting the editors who bought my work, I vowed that the only subject I wouldn't touch in print was disability. There was a stigma there.
Such stories sparked an inclination toward sympathy, charity, choking up and feeling superior — and I didn't want to be a part of it.
By the mid 1980s, however, my involvement in advocacy and legislation advancing the rights of people with disabilities loomed so large in my life that avoiding the topic in my work was increasingly difficult.
Disability rights? People sometimes ask what rights people with disabilities didn't have. Well, to name only a few, I have friends who grew up in the 1960s and who, because they used wheelchairs to get from point A to point B, were not allowed to go to school. I have friends who were fired once they acquired such disabilities as diminished vision, hearing or concentration difficulties. I know of far too many people who, because of some physical or mental disability, were imprisoned in institutions throughout childhood and sometimes as adults.
My own first serious job offer, as an entry level news writer at a television station, was yanked brutally out of reach when the employer saw me with a guide dog. It was legal in the 1970s to tell me I must be a liar, couldn't possibly have written the samples or typed the initial job-seeking letter.
The list goes on.
In 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act, the most comprehensive civil rights law passed in this country or the world since the Civil Rights Act 25 years earlier, made it illegal to discriminate against people with any kind of disability in public contexts. While the passage of the law was one giant step, we are still miles from real equality.
Seventy percent of all working age Americans with disabilities are unemployed. More than half are uninsured or underinsured. Many public facilities are not in compliance — sometimes due to lack of interest and sometimes due to a lack of information.
What changed the focus of my career 20 years ago? A friend persuaded me to write a story about a program designating a specific Sunday as a day to recognize people with disabilities in church congregations. "Bring a Crip to Church Day" it might otherwise have been called. I didn't want to write about disability, but my friend pushed and the topic kept nagging and bothering me. The unexpected outcome delighted me.
Everyone I interviewed expressed some variation of my own attitude: We don't want a special day. We don't want to be fixed. We just want to be invited to the table.
People with disabilities are as different from one another as the human race is as a whole. But all of us, with or without disabilities, are trying to move in the same directions. We want to love and be loved, have work that is satisfying, enjoy the richness of educational, entertainment, spiritual and social opportunities that surround us. We just want that place at the table.
Years ago I was interviewing a doctor for a story and I asked her if she felt she treated her patients with disabilities any differently from those without disabilities. After a moment's thought, she said, "I don't think I have any patients with disabilities." As the interview progressed, one by one particular patients came into her conversation — there was the woman who was blind, the young mother who used crutches, the child with cerebral palsy.
That's the attitude that will do more for equality than any lawsuit. Think of me as a great singer, a terrible dancer, a good mother, a pain in the butt, your neighbor, your nemesis, your teacher and then think of those parts of me that are just traits that I can't change — that I'm so many inches tall, have a certain kind of nose and just happen to be blind.
One in five Americans has a disability, and the numbers are on the rise. Tomorrow, in an instant, you or your best friend could join the ranks. When that happens, the transition will be smoother, the trauma easier if you already know where to go, what to do and something of the extent of the possibilities.
My job, in my view, is to show you those possibilities.