As we near the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act I’ve decided to post thirty short essays about the law, the anniversary, and the cultural impact of #ADA @30. I’m doing this as a disabled person who’s lived half his life before the ADA. I’m reflecting on the “before and after” of the law.
Essay Eight: “Maybe Tomorrow”
Disability is everywhere once you learn to look for it. Elvis Presley had continuous high grade pain the last ten years of his life. Samuel Johnson was legally blind, suffered from seizures, and may well have had a variant of Tourette’s Syndrome. The people in my neighborhood are touched by disablement. Some show it. Others do not. Normalcy, the belief in it, the animadversion to live it or else is the most destructive fiction in the world.
What does it avail me to say so? And why do I keep saying it?
In her excellent book The Contours of Ableism (an elegant title I think) Fiona Kumari Campbell imagines the structural and attitudinal dispositions against the disabled as residing within a telos or set of illusions that maintain the non-disabled identity. When I write against disability discrimination and the privilege indexes of ableism I’m engaging in the work of all disabled activists by asserting the truth of the matter:
“Ableism refers to: a network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical and therefore essential and fully human. Disability then is cast as a diminished state of being human.”
So if there are so many disabled people around why does compulsory normalization still rule the roost? The contours of ableism are protean rather than strictly geometric. Fiona Campbell writes:
“Whether it be the ‘species typical body’ (in science), the ‘normative citizen’ (in political theory), the ‘reasonable man’ (in law), all these signifiers point to a fabrication that reaches into the very soul that sweeps us into life and as such is the outcome and instrument of a political constitution: a hostage of the body.”
One of the interesting things about ableism is that whatever form it takes it occupies the future perfect. There will be time enough to make things right for the non-normals but not today. One may fair say “not today” is the motto of the thing. Non hodie in Latin. Picture a flag bearing the image of an indolent house cat. Not today will we question our assumptions about the majority of bodies on the planet. Ableism also refrains from saying “maybe tomorrow.”
As we contemplate the ADA @ 30 this is its signature, the stitching that holds the book together: “maybe tomorrow” has been retired.
We don’t say “maybe tomorrow” your disabled child can go to school.
Don’t say “maybe tomorrow” you can vote, go to a football game, go shopping.
We don’t say “you can’t attend college, not today…”
The ADA put a stake through maybe tomorrow.
This is in fact what people who hate the ADA are always most worked up about. They wanted their “maybe tomorrow” to last forever. Rather than see disabled customers and their friends and families in their shops and restaurants, small business owners banded together and cried foul—lead most notably by Clint Eastwood—we don’t need no stinkin’ ramps or accessible bathrooms in our tony little “shoppes”—sure the disabled matter, but not today, not now, not thirty years after the ADA, please. I wish I was joking. The Chamber of Commerce and its associated lobbyists have been brutal opponents of making commercial spaces accessible. Not long ago Dominos Pizza argued they didn’t have to make their website accessible to the blind. Not today. Not tomorrow. Perhaps some day. Dominos lost their case in court. They spent more fighting the blind and the ADA then it would have cost them to make a stinking website and app blind friendly. Their position was driven by raw ableism.
So the ADA says “maybe tomorrow’ has been retired.
Like racism, ableism depends on its ugly status quo. The ableist says, “I liked it when the disabled people knew their places.”
I know all the problems with the ADA. But it retired “maybe tomorrow” even though our opponents still wave it around like a discredited flag.