Most people know that George H.W. Bush signed this law. One of the instigators of the law was then-Atty. Gen. Richard Thornburgh who had a son who was physically and developmentally disabled as a result of a car accident. I can’t help but to wonder what would have happened if there was no Dick Thornburgh instigating this sea change for us, based on his personal experience.
I became a quadriplegic in the waning days of 1979, 10 years before the ADA was signed into law. I was a 33 year old married man with 2 young daughters. Fortunately, I was already a psychologist, so I had a profession to fall back on. After spending several months at Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, I was transferred to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital where I would spend the next 6 months learning how to live with this body. I spent all of those months in a facility with people who understood my physical needs, who had resources available to me when I needed them. I was with a group of patients who had similar experiences. It was safe. But it wouldn’t always be that way.
As I was getting closer to discharge, we had an outing in nearby Chinatown so that I could get a sense of what life was like outside of the safety of Magee. There were no curb cuts so my physical therapist had to lift my manual wheelchair up and down every corner. We chose the restaurant we did because they assured us that someone in a wheelchair could easily get in. When we arrived, it “only had a few steps” said the manager. (This still happens today, although much less frequently.) To be honest, that outing reinforced my painful belief at the time that I was a freak of nature. After all, people hadn’t seen many quadriplegics. How could they? Most of us were stuck in our homes or in nursing homes.
Six months later, I returned to work at a local psychiatric hospital where I had been directing their outpatient drug treatment program. Getting into the building required navigating about 25 steps! Fortunately I had a male nurse who was incredibly strong, who could get me up and down those steps. I complained to my employer and asked to get a wheelchair lift installed. Instead, they offered me an office in a wheelchair accessible building about 200 yards away from the program I was running. Never a big fan of being isolated and deprived of the ability to do my work efficiently, I pushed on. I insisted on a wheelchair lift. I was told it was too expensive and they didn’t have to do this that all they had to do was give me an office somewhere. That was in 1983.
Back then, I was a hockey fan, so I went to the old stadium quite often. The only place I could fit was under an overhang behind the last row. So throughout the game I had to sit sideways with my head bent over.
After the ADA, I almost wept when I saw the new Spectrum and the new Citizens Bank Park. I could actually see what was happening in the field and be comfortable at the same time! Over the next several years, I began seeing curb cuts and ramps leading to businesses and restaurants. And now, a few cabs in Philadelphia are wheelchair accessible with the promise of more to come. I can now get on Amtrak and subways in many cities. I’ve experienced wheelchair-accessible national parks and have been able to rent wheelchair vans in most cities in this country. I have even used voting booths that are completely wheelchair accessible, something I couldn’t even imagine 10 years ago. Most importantly, people with disabilities are no longer freaks of nature, we are commonplace. We are finally part of our community.
I’m grateful to all who came before me. And I’m grateful for all of my cohorts who are making it better for those who come after me.
But I can’t help but to wonder about Dick Thornburgh’s son. What if…?