Wright State held a beautiful memorial yesterday for Jeff Vernooy, longtime leader of the university’s disability community. It was my privilege to know Jeff for more than 30 years as a friend, mentor, colleague, and comrade in the struggle known as the disability rights movement. The transcendent moment for me came as the Paul Laurence Dunbar Chorale sang an up-tempo gospel setting of the 23rd Psalm. I could hear the singers, of course, and with the vision remaining to me, I could see something of the sweeping, soaring, emphatic gestures of the American Sign Language interpreter who translated the words. Suddenly I felt – this is life, the diversity of life, life seeking the expression of its vast glories in every possible way. It was a true testament to the legacy of Jeff Vernooy.
I don’t see speakers at podiums anymore, but I want to believe that I will always sense some meaning in the signals of American Sign Language. When I happen to be the speaker at the podium, and an ASL interpreter is working beside me, it can be a challenge to keep on task while marveling at the creativity of ASL opening out so close at hand. The interpreter becomes your collaborator then, and you can learn more about what you have to say than you ever knew before collaborating.
Something like that happened to me in 2010 when Jeff asked me to speak to graduating students about the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Part of that talk is distilled in the op-ed piece quoted below. What moved me then as I expressed it with the interpreter cannot be reproduced in words on a computer screen, but I felt it all over again yesterday as some of those same students paid tribute to Jeff by avowing their own commitment to the cause.
“As you venture forth in the world, you will have to negotiate with people who see the disability, not the person.” That’s what I said In 2010. “Some will look at you and see one more hassle, one more problem added to their plate. When I look at you, I don’t see problems. I see problem-solvers.”
Jeff Vernooy saw problem-solvers in all of us. He taught us to see that ability in ourselves. It’s a legacy that will live on, like the struggle for equal rights for all people with disabilities. The struggle goes on, that’s why it’s called a movement. The struggle goes on, and Jeff wouldn’t want it any other way.
Disabilities Act Still A Work In Progress
by Mark Willis
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Twenty years is significant, not because it’s a round number, but rather, because it represents a generation of experience gained since the law was passed.
Many of us who lobbied for the ADA believed at the time that it could take a generation or more, as it had with the Civil Rights Act before it, to fulfill the ADA’s promise of equal opportunity for Americans with disabilities.
I remember the day 20 years ago tomorrow, July 26, when I went to the White House to watch President George H. W. Bush sign the legislation. The event was held outside on the South Lawn, between the White House and the Ellipse. Everyone had to pass through metal detectors to enter. The Secret Service surely had a crash course in disability awareness, because it was the smoothest security check I ever had.
As I walked through the wrought-iron gate, I looked around and marveled, “Wow, they let me in here!” They let me in, and a thousand other people. We had every kind of disability in the human condition, and we used every kind of assistive device available at the time. I like to think we were the most diverse group of citizens ever gathered together at the White House.
The ADA signing ceremony was held outside, not because it was a beautiful summer day, but because the White House itself was not fully accessible. Many in our diverse group of citizens could not have entered the building. Long gone were the wooden ramps installed five decades earlier to accommodate President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wheelchair.
On its anniversary, pundits will debate what the ADA has accomplished since then. I am no pundit, but I still believe what I said in a TV interview after the signing ceremony. “The ADA will not end disability discrimination overnight. But in a nation governed by the rule of law, getting it in writing is the place to start.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act was an unfinished project at the moment it was signed into law, and it remains an unfinished project today. It depends on all of us, and the work we will do, to carry it to completion.
My own work has been greatly influenced by Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and philosopher of liberation. He taught non-literate poor people how to read by first convincing them that, through the daily work they did with their hands, they had culture and made culture. He believed culture to be an unfinished project that he called “the struggle for human completion.”
Listen to that expansive phrase again. “The struggle for human completion.” That is a worldview large enough to include all of us, whether we have disabilities or not. That is a project in which all of us are engaged. That struggle makes us human.
In the years since the ADA became law, we’ve begun to talk about something called “the culture of disability.” I do not think that disability is a fully evolved culture in the same sense that we speak of Mayan culture or even Deaf Culture. But I do believe that the work of disability is a significant form of cultural production.
By “work of disability,” I mean the daily problem-solving involved in living with a disability — making adaptations and negotiating accommodations — according to principles set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The work of disability is creative work. It’s work that addresses the impairments of individuals, to be sure, but it’s also work that strives to make society more flexible and tolerant. Many of us, disabled and non-disabled, have significant experience with this work, but it seldom shows up on a job resume.
Recently I was invited to talk about the ADA with graduating students with disabilities at Wright State University. I told them, “As you venture forth in the world, you will have to negotiate with people who see the disability, not the person. Some will look at you and see one more hassle, one more problem added to their plate. When I look at you, I don’t see problems. I see problem-solvers.
“So go out there and get it done, this unfinished project called the struggle for human completion. Claim your rightful place in the public sphere. The Americans with Disabilities Act has got your back.”
[Thanks to Ellen Belcher for publishing this piece in 2010 on the Dayton Daily News opinion page (PDF) and Matter of Opinion blog. And thanks always to Jeff Vernooy for giving me the occasion for expressing it, in words and ASL.]