There Oughta’ Be A Law:
Discriminatory Short-Circuit of Summer Job
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.
I was eighteen at the beginning of the summer of 1967, and had just finished my first year in college. That summer has been dubbed the “Summer of Love,” but it was also the “long, hot summer” of race riots, and the “Vietnam Summer” of antiwar activism and escalation of the war. My focus, however, was principally on trying to find a summer job in my hometown, Evansville, Indiana. Fortuitously for me, Local Union 16 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, of which my father was a member, was experimenting with a new program that would allow college students who were the sons (the idea of daughters being a part of it was apparently not even considered) to be hired for the summer to work as assistants to the electricians. Perhaps because the program was a (nepotistic) benefit to the union electricians, the terms were unbelievable – those hired would be paid a full union wage, equivalent to what journeyman electricians earned, and considerably more than apprentices who were working their butts off for up to five years trying to attain journeyman status. When my father told me about this phenomenal opportunity to earn far more than at any summer job I’d ever heard about, I ran to the union hall and signed up. A short time later I was overjoyed to learn that I had been selected.
Getting ready for my first day of work was something of a production. My dad gave me a used hard hat and a somewhat worn, but serviceable, leather electrician’s tool belt that he was no longer using. He helped equip me with the pliers, screwdrivers, scratch awl, wooden folding ruler, level, wire cutters, electrical tape, and other tools and supplies that I would likely need. Most of the tools were extras that he had around; some of them had seen better days, such as a pair of diagonal wire cutters that had what Dad called a “stupid hole,” where he had accidentally tried to cut a live wire and burned a hole in the metal cutting edge. Some key ones, such as linesman pliers and Channel Locks, we had to purchase new.
My mother, proud of her son heading out into the construction work world, took a picture of me before I went to the job for the first time. The photo shows me in full array, in a tee shirt, blue jeans, and work boots, with my white hard hat on, my working guy’s lunch box in one hand, and the loaded tool belt hanging low on my hip like a gunfighter’s holster. The outfit made me, a shy 18-year-old, feel grown up and virile. A close look at the picture, however, also reveals the disparity of my right shoulder and upper arm, smaller and misshapen compared to my left, as a result of polio when I was a year old. For a description of my bout with polio and its effects on me and my family, see “Bobby’s Arm.”
The union assigned me to a construction project at a local hospital that was adding a new wing. The foreman and electricians I met were welcoming and helped me to “learn the ropes” (I certainly had a lot of ropes to learn), and things went pretty well for a couple of days, as I kept busy, learned a lot, and got to use many of the tools in my belt.
On the third day, however, the construction manager came to the site for the first time since I had been there. He came over to confer with the electrician foreman and to exchange hellos with the electricians and other workmen. When he was introduced to me and other newcomers, he looked me over with some intensity, and then told me to come with him. He had me walk beside him over to a telephone, and, without any explanation to me, put in a call to the electricians’ union hall. I stood beside him as he said “We don’t want any cripples on the job,” and told the union official that he was dismissing me immediately from the site.
I was quite aware of the word “cripple” from such organizations as the “National Society for Crippled Children” (which that very year changed its name to “Easter Seals”), the “Crippled Children’s Clinic” in Evansville, the “Camp for Crippled Children,” and from overhearing it in conversations, but I certainly did not want that label. Later I would learn of the derivation of the word “cripple” from roots associated with “creeping” – crawling along the ground – and saw it gradually become viewed as pejorative and then being rejected as offensive by the disability community.
As I slinked away from the construction site, and for quite a while later, my macho bubble was completely burst. Having been rejected and cast aside, I was as low as the belly of a snake in a deep ditch. I felt defective, inferior, and very sorry for myself. The experience caused a resurgence of an emotion I carried deep within myself, a plaintive cry expressed in the form of one big Why Me? That question actually embodied a series of questions: Why did I have polio? Why did I have a messed up right arm? Now, I added, Why was I the guy who was thrown off the job site? Why did I have to be publicly embarrassed and humiliated?
My parents were very uncomfortable about discussing or even mentioning my disability, so I did not get much in the way of comfort or reassurance from them. When I got home after getting kicked off the job, I laid down my tool belt, and went and sat by myself on a concrete block on the back side of our driveway; fighting back tears, I tried to lick my wounds and began to pull myself back together.
As my dismissal was happening, I was hurt and wanted to fight back. After all, the manager had not even looked at my performance to see if there were job duties I couldn’t do. I fervently wish I could have shouted that he couldn’t just toss me out. I would have loved to yell, “You can’t do that. It’s against the law.” But, sadly, it wasn’t illegal. If he had said, we don’t want any Catholics or Muslims or Jews on the job, or any blacks or Hispanics or Japanese, or any women, he would have been violating federal antidiscrimination laws. But there was no law that prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability, no matter how blatant and unjustified. The absence of any law outlawing discrimination against people with disabilities really stuck in my craw, a strong and intense lesson that remained with me throughout my life and career, and fueled my commitment to changing this unjust reality.
The aftermath of my having gotten the boot was not all bad. When I got my paycheck for the three days of work I had done, at journeyman wages, it was for over $200 – which I considered a princely sum. It enabled me to buy my first car – a 1956 Ford – for $150. The car was hardly a gem; among other flaws, its clutch was very worn, the steering had a good deal of “play” (meaning I had to constantly steer back and forth to keep it going straight ahead); and the exterior had big rust holes. But it was my first set of wheels, had a dandy 289 cubic-inch V8 engine that was powerful and fast, and served me well for the next several years.
The original electricians’ sons program did not last much longer than I did; after a few weeks, construction companies and contractors registered objections to paying journeyman wages to inexperienced workers, even if they were fledgling scholars, and the union pulled the plug on the program. It resurfaced the next year with wages adjusted to more realistic levels, and I worked in the revised program without incident for the next two summers, helping to wire the new Evansville Civic Center, and to install wiring in the emergency rooms and lay outdoor electrical conduit at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Huntingburg, Indiana. I certainly proved that I was capable of performing all the professional tasks of an amateur electrician. On my cluttered work bench in the basement of our home, I still have my electricianing tools, tool belt, hard hat, and lunch box. I also have retained the burning memory of the injustice I felt when I was subjected to flagrant disability discrimination, back when there was no law prohibiting it.
About 20 years later, an Evansville reporter, Linda Negro, wrote an article titled “Painful Memory Fired Crusading Zeal,” in which she described my getting kicked off the construction site as the motivating force behind a “crusade” for disability rights that led to my drafting the ADA bill whose introduction in Congress would occur three months later.
 Linda Negro, “Painful Memory Fired Crusading Zeal,” The Sunday [Evansville] Courier, January 31, 1988, p. A1. In a companion piece, Negro summarized my career and professional accomplishments to that time. Linda Negro, “Burgdorf’s Limitations Fade when He Reaches to Help,” The Sunday [Evansville] Courier, January 31, 1988, p. A5.