Disabilities

When basketball hysteria grips the Hoosier State this winter, Ed Hamilton, an assistant professor of health, physical education, and recreation, might be inclined to take in a game at Assembly Hall. Yet, the Maryland native admits, he's fonder of baseball and football. But in Indiana, one does as the natives do, and Hamilton, having been at the Indiana University Bloomington School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation for the past five years, has come to enjoy Indiana roundball action.

Therein lies the rub. Hamilton uses a wheelchair. As director of research at the National Center on Accessibility, a joint program of IU and the National Park Service, he is in a position to know about the design and management of parks, recreation areas, and sports facilities. The center, based at Bradford Woods, IU's 2,300-acre outdoor recreation and camping area north of Martinsville, offers cutting-edge research, technical assistance, and educational programs to federal, state, and local agencies and organizations in order to make recreational facilities accessible to persons with disabilities.

But in making plans to see the Hurryin' Hoosiers, Hamilton invariably must recall the seating patterns at Assembly Hall: two seats per season ticketholder, and for persons who use wheelchairs, the companion sits directly behind the wheelchair. Rather than subjecting himself and his wife or one of his two sons to such a scenario, Hamilton usually opts to watch the game on TV at home with his family.

symbol Such compromised lifestyle choices are of increasing concern to leaders and observers of America's disability rights movement, including Hamilton and two IU education professors, Barbara Wilcox and James McLeskey. Wilcox, a professor of education and executive associate dean in the School of Education, at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and McLeskey, a professor of education in the School of Education, at Indiana University Bloomington, specialize in inclusionary approaches to special education in the public schools. Although design of recreational facilities and special education issues are separate professional interests, all three professors have arrived at similar conclusions about the disability rights movement and how the issues play out at a major university such as IU. In their research pursuits and collaborations with such diverse entities at the U.S. Department of Education, the Association of Disabled American Golfers, and municipal agencies, these faculty members have developed keen insights into disability rights and the optimum environments for educating and providing recreational opportunities for persons with disabilities.

Hamilton, Wilcox, and McLeskey believe the disability rights movement is at a pivotal point in its history. "The movement is stronger today than it ever has been," Hamilton says. "There are more vocal advocates and more educated and more assertive advocates than ever before." Society is widely acknowledging persons with disabilities and their rights through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, considered the most extensive piece of social legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Scholars and historians see the law as the culmination of continuing, yet uneven, disability rights campaigns during America's history. Until World War II, these campaigns were often waged singlehandedly by enlightened individuals and devoted family members. Dorothea Dix, the Boston schoolteacher who led the fight for state control of squalid almshouses in the 1840s, and Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller's longtime teacher and companion, readily come to mind. Yet even America's first popular figure with disabilities, Franklin D. Roosevelt, hid his polio impairment, Hamilton notes. Historian Hugh Gallagher pointed out that FDR hoisted himself up using the arms of his son and Secret Service agents when he made public appearances.

"Disabled people turned to civil disobedience for the first time during the Depression," states Joseph Shapiro in his book No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. Three hundred New York pensioners occupied Works Progress Administration offices in Washington to protest being overlooked for WPA jobs. Yet it was veterans returning from World War II who wanted a semblance of life as they had known it, Hamilton points out, who became America's first strong self-advocates for disability rights. Following outbreaks of polio in the early 1950s, the American National Standards Institute, in association with the Easter Seals Society and the University of Illinois, established the first architectural design standards for persons with disabilities. Today, Hamilton and the National Center on Accessibility contribute significantly to this mission by recommending standards for community recreation programs, golf courses, beach areas, trails, interpretive facilities, and wilderness areas.

symbol After World War II, groups supporting disability causes, such as the United Cerebral Palsy Association, proliferated. The movement picked up momentum with support from President John F. Kennedy, who had a sister with mental retardation, and the campus advocacy efforts of crusader Ed Roberts at Berkeley. The political muscle of disability rights advocates and a strong, supportive lobby became apparent during the Reagan and Bush administrations, particularly through the efforts of Evan Kemp Jr. Kemp, an activist lawyer, convinced Bush that persons with disabilities wanted independence and self-empowerment. As Shapiro points out in his book, work toward the ADA brought together 180 national organizations, ranging from mainstream groups like the Council for Exceptional Children to more radical groups such as ADAPT, which staged a crawl-up up the steps of the U.S. Capitol in the weeks before the vote on the ADA.

Invariably, parallels are drawn between the disability rights movement and the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the gay/lesbian rights movement. Comparisons to African Americans are strong. The Denver-based ADAPT, founded in 1983 to empower disabled people through citizen protest, made a point of getting city buses equipped with lifts as a symbol of their quest for basic rights. Atlanta activist Mark Johnson said, "Black people fought for the right to ride in the front of the bus. We're fighting for the right to get on the bus." Today, Hamilton asserts, persons with disabilities are fighting for where they will sit on that bus and whether they will get to drive that bus.

Yet five years after the ADA's passage and three years after it went into effect in 1992, "public schools, business, and institutions of higher education are still struggling with what the ADA means and how it will be implemented," McLeskey states. "There's still a long way to go," McLeskey says, noting that the progress of movement and the inclusionary process in society have been gradual, with "starts and stops . . . taking two steps forward and one back . . . . By and large, the state of affairs is [still] relatively poor in many cases," he asserts. "There's still quite a bit of litigation, many cases where people [with disabilities] continue to fight for their basic civil rights." And even with the law on the books, the concept of "reasonable accommodation" is subject to wide interpretation. It often involves costly modifications of entrances and the addition of elevators, lifts, and accessible facilities, and companies view these costs warily, especially during times of downsizing and budget constraints.

"Reasonable accommodation" was first introduced in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibited discrimination against persons with disabilities in any program or activity using federal funds or federal contractors. The ADA extended this protection to the private sector. Providing access to federal buildings for persons with physical disabilities was first mandated by the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968. Section 504 extended the protection to all buildings using federal funds. For a large research institution like IU, this meant a considerable expenditure in making a new facility like the Wright Education Building accessible. Section 504 also provided that reasonable effort be made to remove barriers in existing buildings, according to Steve Morris, director of Disabled Student Services at IU Bloomington. Yet the full ramifications of the ADA remain to be seen.

Already, public elementary and secondary schools have had two decades of experience with making classrooms inclusionary and with meeting requirements that students with disabilities be educated in the "least restrictive environment" in compliance with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. McLeskey, who specializes in teacher education issues in mainstreamed settings, says higher education has much to learn from public schools, which have "led the way" in integrating students with disabilities into classrooms. As more graduates of inclusionary public schools enter colleges and universities, they will exert pressure on institutions of higher learning to provide team teaching, peer tutoring, and other inclusionary instructional techniques, he says.

symbol Providing adaptive approaches for students with learning disabilities is, McLeskey says, becoming a major issue facing institutions of higher learning due to the growing number of individuals with learning disabilities identified in public schools. Generally, 5 percent of elementary and secondary students in public school have learning disabilities, and often colleges and universities must make adaptations for these students to adjust to college life. McLeskey says special accommodations for admission and instructional guidelines for students with learning disabilities have been established at such institutions as Ball State, the University of Indianapolis, Arizona State, and Southern Illinois University. Morris said IU Bloomington hired a learning disabilities specialist this year to address the 500 percent increase in students with learning disabilities attending IU in the past six to eight years.

Both McLeskey and Wilcox, ever-attentive to the needs of students with disabilities in the classroom, use the term "progressive inclusion" to characterize the disability rights movement today. "With disabilities, as with race, gender, and sexual orientation issues, we are becoming what one scholar calls ‘progressively inclusive,' a path from segregation and real overt discrimination to steps that acknowledge the existence of individuals with disabilities in constructive and human ways," says Wilcox. "Growing up segregated in a disability sense--which probably most of us did--really disables us in terms of our own sensitivity to the needs and interests of individuals who have disabilities," she says.

McLeskey notes "striking similarities" between disability issues and those of homosexuals. He and Wilcox agree that increasing assertiveness by persons with disabilities in recent years compares favorably to the gay/lesbian concept of "coming out of the closet," and some more militant persons with disabilities refer to themselves as "cripples" in the same way that gays and lesbians refer to themselves as "queers."

Although their ranks are exceedingly diverse--including injured veterans; industrial- and traffic-accident victims; persons with developmental disabilities, Down syndrome, cerebal palsy, and a host of congenital maladies; persons with AIDS; the deaf; the visually impaired; and growing numbers of dyslexics and persons with learning disabilities--persons with disabilities are now considered the largest minority ever defined. The 1990 census numbered them at 49 million, Hamilton notes, up from an estimated 43 million at the time of the drafting of the ADA. When one multiplies that number by three--taking into accound others in the households of persons with diabilities--the impact of disabilities on America is staggering, Hamilton points out.

At bottom in addressing the issues of minorities, whoever they may be, is the whole matter of tolerance of someone perceived as different, says Wilcox. But McLeskey says, breaches in accommodating persons with disabilities may stem from basic ignorance about such persons and from society's "set of traditions" in doing things a certain way.

"I think we're at the point where instead of trying to make people with disabilities ‘normal'--either make their intellectual functioning ‘normal,' make their sensory capacity ‘normal,' or make their physical abilities ‘normal'--part of what we're coming around to is just acknowledging that there are differences and that because someone is different, it's not bad," Wilcox says. "There's no need to remake them in our image; they're not really broken.

"What you find in conversations with individuals that the person on the street would probably identify as ‘disabled' or ‘handicapped' is that very often [these persons] don't consider themselves to be [disabled or handicapped]," Wilcox says. Their response to such a categorzation is, "‘This is the way I came; this is the package that I'm in; this is me and who are you to say that that's imperfect or that I need to be like you?'"

Wilcox notes that one now sees more students on IU campuses with identifiable disabilities than one did five to ten years ago. Although she lives in Bloomington, she believes she detects a generally more accommodating atmosphere for persons with disabilities at IUPUI than on the IU Bloomington campus. McLeskey concurs, noting that urban campuses, with buildings closer together, generally are in an easier position to accommodate persons with disabilities. Cities such as Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, with their fully accessible rail systems, as well as college towns such as Berkeley, California; Urbana-Champaign, Illinois; Burlington, Vermont; Eugene, Oregon; and Charlottesville, Virginia were cited by the three professors as "pockets of excellence" (McLeskey's words) in a national patchwork of efforts to apply and implent the ADA.

All this work delving into ideal environments for persons with disabilities has made these three professors admittedly sensitive to the needs, interests, and aspirations of this large, diverse minority. Wilcox--who devoted her master's and doctoral work in developmental psychology at Urbana-Champaign to studying whether students with severe disabilities can, indeed, be taught--jokingly said she charges a dollar for each time students in her classes do not use "people-first" language to describe those with disabilities.

Each professor has his or her own horror stories. McLeskey remembers a student in one of his mainstreaming classes using a very derogatory term for persons with mental retardation. Hamilton continues to experience paternalistic, condescending attitudes from people who do not understand that people in wheelchairs want a normal life just like everybody else. "Having access to the building is one thing," Hamilton says about the open doors to places like Assembly Hall, "but having a choice where you sit and who goes with you is another."