By MARY JOHNSON
The landscape of our nation is changing so subtly that we may not notice. Sidewalks have ramps cut into curbs at corners. The new McDonald's has wide spaces between its tables. Some rows in the new movie theater have a few seats missing at the ends.
More than the landscape has changed. The bartender switches the TV to "mute" when it gets too noisy in the bar, and we follow the news stories with the type scrolling across the bottom of the screen.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, 15 years old this month, has changed the face of America, moving us toward a more "accessible," livable society.
The call for captions came from advocates for the deaf, who pressured Congress to require them for most TV programs, and to require TVs to come equipped with caption decoders. Today, captions benefit bar patrons, immigrants learning English and youngsters learning to read, as well as deaf people. Roomy toilet stalls, required for wheelchair access, result from disability advocates' work to change building codes and state laws. We're all grateful for an elevator from the subway up to the street.
Curb cuts make life easier not just for wheelchair users, but also for travelers pulling rolling bags, bike riders, skateboarders, UPS workers, Segway users and parents pushing baby strollers.
People who are blind, or deaf, or who use wheelchairs have done a lot to change our society and our environment -- and the changes intended to open society for them have had a spin-off benefit for all of us. Their ideas and their insistence on being included are building a more accommodating landscape, a more easily navigated environment, a more welcoming society for us all.
Yet though we read the captions on CNN in the noisy airport bar and duck into the "handicap stall" because it's big enough for us and our wheeled luggage, pundits complain that "the disabled lobby" is nothing more than a special-interest group that yells for all buildings to have wheelchair ramps; that insists on more accessible restrooms; that demands TV captioning -- regulations that require accommodations for "the disabled."
The Americans with Disabilities Act presents a set of new ideas for people, and most people -- including judges -- still do not know what to do with these ideas. The real purpose of protection from disability discrimination is not to identify a particular group of individuals who are entitled to some kind of special treatment; it is to provide equal opportunities for all of us.
People called "disabled" by society are just people -- not different in any critical way from other people, except in that they often encounter a form of discrimination that the rest of us seem mostly unaware of.
To understand the promise of disability rights, we must first "come to grips with the underlying realities of human abilities and disabilities," as the law's original design put it. Disability is simply a natural part of human lives; sooner or later it will touch most of us. "The goal is not to fixate on, overreact to, or engage in stereotypes about such differences, but to take them into account and allow for reasonable accommodation for individual abilities and impairments that will permit equal participation."
Is dismissing a worker who can't lift her hands above her head -- rather than modifying the equipment so that she can reach it -- reasonable? Is it a form of discrimination based on disability? Is running a non-ergonomic factory a kind of disability discrimination? Is it reasonable if a company tells a worker he can take a break only every three hours when he needs to lie down for a few minutes every hour or so -- and can show that the brief rest does not decrease his work output?
These are the kinds of disability-rights questions we should be talking about in society. But public discussion has still not gotten around to the new ideas that underpin the disability-rights vision.
X Mary Johnson covered the disability-rights movement for over two decades for The Disability Rag magazine.