Stories and Essays
Nothing beats a good story! My professional reputation is largely based on writing legislation, legal briefs, law review articles, government reports, a legal treatise, and a law school casebook, genres that might be thought of as dry, scholarly, maybe nerdish. I pride myself, however, on being a pretty good storyteller. Whenever possible, I use stories to illustrate my points or to spice up otherwise technical prose. Several of the webpages on this site are oriented toward detailed historical content, but many of them contain juicy anecdotes that can stand alone. More details about these stories can be found on relevant webpages. Other stories are based on experiences and sources not otherwise described on this site, but are relevant enough to cry out for telling.
Frequently the stories arose from Wow! or OMG moments that have come my way in the nearly 50 years of my career in disability rights – when I wanted to yell, “I can’t believe what just happened,” or “I’m amazed at how terrific that advocate is. What a hero!” or “This is so wonderful! I can’t believe I’m here,” or “I’m astounded at what we just accomplished.” I am happy to have created this forum where I can tell stories so that you might share my excitement.
In addition to stories, you’ll find thought pieces and reflections on topics related to disability rights and the ADA. Profiles of remarkable people I’ve met on the disability rights trail, and my perspectives on particular issues, concepts, and questions are also included. The Stories and Essays page is an ongoing project, to which additional sections will be added. These stories and essays hopefully will be interesting, informative, thought-provoking, even compelling.
An incident in 1967 punched me in the gut and contributed to my becoming a disability rights advocate. I have told the story many times, to students in my disability rights classes, and to scholars and journalists. Before now, I have never given a written account, so I have decided to put fingers to keyboard to present my first-person report.
A dramatic, concrete illustration of why an ADA-type law was sorely needed. A client of mine, a “cool” and “hip” jazz trumpeter who developed multiple sclerosis (at a time when there was no treatment to slow down or ameliorate the progression of the disease), was fired from his day job as a parole and probation agent when he became unable to handwrite his reports. He sought to challenge his unfair termination under the only applicable federal law prohibiting disability discrimination at the time. Because of deficiencies in the existing law, his lawsuit was obstructed and delayed at every turn. Learn what he went through and what happened to him in the end.
In the shadow of the 30th anniversary on July 26, 2020, many Americans have little idea of the interesting background and often dramatic events that culminated in the ADA, and may harbor misimpressions about the law and its origins. In this section, in honor of the anniversary, I offer a catalog of significant but lesser-known facts about the origins and passage of the ADA.
- Its roots in the successes of a Disability Rights Movement that began in the 1970s and unleashed an avalanche of lawsuits
- The horrendous societal treatment of people with disabilities prior to the Disability Rights Movement and the ADA
- Judicial victories that led to enactment of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, major forerunners of the ADA
- The proposal of a comprehensive law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability did not come from Washington insiders
- Initial opposition to the ADA proposal from within the disability community
- The near undoing of the ADA in conference committee
- The exceptionally bipartisan enactment of the ADA
As the 30th ADA Anniversary approached, I decided to tackle the complex question of authorship of the ADA issue head-on with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, and to provide a full airing of my views regarding all the people who deserve credit for contributing to the ADA, describing what I know about who did what, and clarifying the roles I played in the writing of the ADA and assisting in its passage.
A powerful precedent was set in a case (In re G. H.) in which I had the honor to represent a child with severe physical disabilities before the Supreme Court of North Dakota. I managed to win a judicial victory that was the first decision by the highest court of any state recognizing the constitutional right of children with disabilities to equal educational opportunities in the public schools. It’s a heartwarming story of the young woman and her fight against the odds, how I came to represent her (my knees shaking with fear in court), an outrageous faux pas I made when beginning my oral argument, and how some late-night legal research made the difference in the outcome of the case.
The “Continental Quest,” the first-ever coast-to-coast wheelchair trek across the United States, was made by two top wheelchair road racers and marathon champions, Phil Carpenter and George Murray. Experience the two athletes’ rollicking adventures during the trip, including descending roads in the Rocky Mountains at speeds that at times approached 50 miles per hour and equipping their wheelchairs with caliper brakes and “drogue parachutes” to control the speed. Surprisingly, their trans-America slog played a direct role in inducing major changes to make the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island accessible to wheelchair users and folks with other disabilities.
Tom Gilhool, disability rights attorney extraordinaire, passed away on August 22, 2020. It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of Tom’s leadership, innovation, and genius in the birth and flowering of the Disability Rights Movement. He was the legal brains and crafty lawyer behind the PARC case, the statewide, class-action, federal court lawsuit that inspired an eruption of court cases around the country establishing the right of students with disabilities to attend public schools, thereby effectively launching what became the Disability Rights Movement in America. In this essay, I honor and commemorate his legacy and my good fortune in getting to work with, and learn from, him.
This essay identifies a number of ways in which measures to address the COVID-19 pandemic have shafted persons with disabilities, and analyzes how and why people with disabilities were shortchanged. As all Americans and all agencies of government and the private sector do their parts to end the pandemic and get the country back on its feet, they must ensure equal justice and avoid discrimination against people with disabilities. Doing so involves two interrelated components: (1) Recognizing and putting into action certain fundamental principles about fair and humane treatment of people with disabilities, and (2) Operationalizing policies and measures addressing the COVID-19 crisis to reflect the needs and respect the human and legal rights of people with disabilities.