Jill Robinson watched the televised images of Gallaudet protesters and thought excitedly, "These students are fighting my fight."
Robinson, an Arlington attorney, is not deaf. But she uses a wheelchair and knows a lot about the barriers thrown up to people with disabilities, about the patronizing attitudes of others, about the desire to show everyone, as the Gallaudet students did, that "I can be who I am and make it in the world." The Gallaudet protest week made Robinson a "TV news junkie, flipping the channels up and down" to catch scenes -- over and over -- of Gallaudet students signing, en masse, for a "Deaf President Now." "It was," she says, "one of the most poignant moments of my life."
Like Robinson, millions of Americans who can't hear, see, walk or who have other impairments are coming to view themselves as members of a common minority group. A 1985 poll by Louis Harris and Associates found that 74 percent of disabled Americans say they share a "common identity" with other disabled people and 45 percent argue they are "a minority group in the same sense as are blacks and Hispanics." Taken together, people with disabilities would make up the country's largest minority. There are 37 million Americans with physical disabilities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
At the core of this growing collective identity is a new philosophy. Rejected is the traditional mindset that it's up to the individual to overcome his or her own physical limitation. That kind of thinking has given rise to the public's glorification of what Mary Johnson, editor of the disability rights movement's irreverent Disability Rag, calls "supercrips" -- achievers such as Terry Fox, who ran across Canada on an artificial leg, or Jim Dickson, the blind sailor seeking to solo across the Atlantic. Extraordinary achievement is laudable, but it does not reflect the day-to-day reality of most disabled people, she says.
Instead, according to the disability rights movement, it is not so much the individual that needs to change -- but society. The biggest obstacle facing people with physical impairments, Johnson says, are people's prejudices about disability -- whether it's a refusal to hire someone with epilepsy or a failure to make buildings accessible to people in wheelchairs. Although disability rights activists most often draw parallels to the civil rights and women's movements, Johnson says the best analogy may be with gay rights. Like homosexuals in the early 1970s, many disabled people now are rejecting the "stigma" that there is something tragic or pitiable about their condition. Johnson's magazine has even coined a slogan -- "Disability Cool" --
the movement's equivalent of "Gay Pride" or "Black is Beautiful." Says Judy Heumann of the World Institute on Disability: "Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives -- jobs opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example. It is not a tragedy to me that I'm living in a wheelchair."
So more and more frequently, disabled people are attacking discrimination. Sometimes the prejudice to be fought is crude, like that of the New Jersey private zoo owner who refused to admit children with Down syndrome to the Monkey House because, he claimed, they upset his chimpanzees. Other times, the rights at issue are not so clear-cut, as in the case of Tiffany Callo, the cerebral palsy patient fighting California welfare officials for custody of her two young sons.
Perhaps most serious is employment discrimination. According to the 1985 Harris poll, two thirds of disabled people are unemployed. Almost all of these people "want to work and can work," instead of being forced to accept welfare, says Sandra Swift Parrino of the National Council on the Handicapped. Although a disability may limit the type of work a person can do, more often, she says, companies simply don't want to hire or accommodate physically impaired workers. Syracuse University economics professor William Johnson found that even when people with disabilities do hold jobs, they make less than other workers and are less likely to be promoted. Even after factors such as the possibility of a handicapped person's lack of experience or lowered productivity are taken into account, disabled men still make 15 percent less than non-disabled co-workers, according to Johnson. For women, there is a 30 percent difference.
There is no Martin Luther King or Betty Friedan of the disability rights movement. But its organizations are becoming more militant. Members of American Disabled for Accessible Public Transportation (ADAPT) use civil disobedience to lobby for transit systems to put lifts on all buses. In mid-March, 24 ADAPT members were arrested in Washington for blocking traffic after a day-long sit-in at the Department of Transportation. ADAPT argues that "para-transit" -- separate vans for people with wheelchairs -- amounts to a system that is "segregated" and, besides, doesn't work very well. "Black people had to fight for the right to ride at the front of the bus," says Mark Johnson, an ADAPT leader. "We're fighting for the right to get on."
Even the 13 members -- all Reagan appointees -- of the National Council on the Handicapped are targeting discrimination as the No. 1 problem facing people with disabilities. The council, a small independent federal agency, has drafted that most unlikely of things from the Reagan administration --
a comprehensive civil rights bill. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1988 would extend the same type of legal protection already guaranteed to blacks and women -- against bias in housing and hiring, for example -- to Americans with "physical or mental impairment."
Council attorney Robert Burgdorf Jr. says the legislation is necessary because the few protections that do exist --
primarily Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination in activities that receive federal funding --
are too narrow and "very difficult, if not impossible to enforce." Because the act is expensive and broad -- it would also require new buses to be equipped with lifts and that television stations caption most of their programs and advertising for deaf people --
it will attract a vast array of interest group opposition. But the bill, to be introduced next month by Senators Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), will also serve as a rallying point for a cross-section of disability groups. "People with epilepsy now will be advocates for the same piece of legislation as people who are deaf," says Liz Savage, assistant director for governmental affairs for the Epilepsy Foundation of America. "That has never happened before. And that's really historic."
Why the rise of a civil rights movement for the disabled now? A similar movement started briefly in 1977 -- when protesters seeking federal regulations staged sit-ins at Department of Health, Education and Welfare offices -- but then quickly died. This time, advocates say, the movement is stronger. For one thing, hundreds of thousands of handicapped children have gone through education programs with non-disabled children since 1975, when mainstreaming was advocated by law. Says Cyndi Jones, publisher of the magazine Mainstream: "After 12 years of mainstreaming, the disabled feel they have a right to have jobs, to have family and to do anything else anybody else does."
Also a factor is the rise since the early 1970s of some 200 independent living centers. These nonprofit advocacy groups run by disabled people have fostered a new generation of activists. Further, disability groups gained political sophistication after they mobilized to stop efforts in the early years of the Reagan administration to cut back on federal regulations that protected handicapped individuals.
Jim Charlton of Access Living of Chicago, says Gallaudet was "a watershed in the history of the disability rights movement" that, for years to come, will be held up as "a shining example of what can be done."
Jill Robinson, however, is not so sure the victory significantly changed public attitudes. The fight over a deaf president, she says, was clear-cut. Issues such as putting lifts on buses "are more complicated." And the Gallaudet protest took place on a university campus where it did not have an impact on hearing people. The students were "clean-cut and All-American," she adds. People in wheelchairs are often "frightening" to non-disabled people. "It's easy to sympathize with a cause when you don't have to change your own behavior," says the Arlington attorney. "But to empathize, you have to change. What we need now is for everyone to change their own behavior."
Joseph P. Shapiro is an associate editor at U.S. News & World Report.