The following was written by community activist and retired Capital Metro employee Nancy Crowther. Read more from Nancy in today’s Austin American-Statesman.
Once upon a time in America there was a wee little community of people with disabilities. They were called “the handicapped.”
The phrase ‘handicapped” actually comes from a law passed in England in 1504 whereby only wounded solders could be on street corners to beg. They would often tip their hat from their uniform. They came to be known as “handy-cappers.” And so goes the phrase’s origin. Not the best of images but the label was used for people who had “something’ wrong with them.” I actually thought, as I was growing up, that the only sports people with “handicaps” could play were golf, horse racing and bowling. I led a sheltered life. I now find the h-word offensive. I am one of “those” people.
I was taken to school by my father in the station wagon because there were no wheelchair lifts on the school buses. In junior high, still no lifts on buses or accommodations to help me get to school, my father, retired Army Lt. Col., arranged transportation through the US Army base at Fort Hood. I had an ambulance ride to school. Yup, a real-live ambulance with flashing lights so everyone knew when I arrived and left school, every day. That did a job on my social life! It worked! Got me to school! High School presented a bigger problem, I graduated to an electric wheelchair for mobility. I had the football team help carry me upstairs to attend class, then we met again and went down the steps. Not all classes, just one, for a whole, long, miserable semester. By the time I graduated and rolled across the stage to get my diploma, I got a standing ovation. I think they were glad to see me go….away… and annoy another school. Actually, in those days not many persons with disabilities made it to graduation and the applause thrilled me to know, they knew the struggles and the victories.
Hook’em Horns! I was in the UT Centennial graduating class (1983)–that means we all wore burnt orange caps and gowns…yeah, that was a sight! As I reflect back on it, Charlie Brown and the Pumpkin Patch always comes to mind. I did a lot of growing up at UT–I learned how to advocate, mentor, protest, negotiate, shout out for my rights and get in trouble. I was no longer the nice little girl in the wheelchair. I however, was trapped on campus–no lifts on the shuttle service. Funny, this seems to be a haunting theme following me. My chair could get me just so far…another lesson I learned…never run out of power on 40 + acres!
I got involved with a group of students with disabilities who had the same problem I did. The slogan was: don’t whine, Organize! I was part of a class action suit (Ferris, et. al. V The University of Texas) against UT based on discrimination with lack of access to shuttle service. Using the freight elevator to get to the Federal Court was the cherry-on-top! A Federal Building without access…hummmmm. The odds of winning were grim.
Then came Capital Metro (for which I voted for and support wholeheartedly) and an alliance with a radical wheelchair gang known as ADAPT….demanding lifts on buses. Chanting “We Will Ride” we disrupted several board meetings to get the concept across to the board and staff that we want to ride public transit–make it so Capital Metro. We also disturbed, putting it mildly, the American Public Transit Association meetings across the nation. Protesters chained their wheelchairs to the front of buses to stop service. It happened all across the nation and even at Capital Metro. Cool. Capital Metro relented in 1986 and began buying buses with lifts…what a victory that will live in infamy.
All this time, behind the scenes at the national level, the American’s with Disabilities Act was being developed to prevent discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment practices, access to city resources, public transit, businesses, pedestrian pathways, communication… the list goes on. Basic civil rights that everyone else has.
July 26, 1990, advocates from across the nation watched as President Bush signed the Act into law. The date is today. Twenty years old now. A second Declaration of Independence for Americans with Disabilities.
As a retired Accessible Transit Specialist with Capital Metro I had the privilege to implement the ADA regulations, see it all unfold, and yes, I do ride!
I saw a poster once that showed a lift equipped bus and the caption said: With the ADA, Wheelchairs can now go 55 miles an hour. Zoom-Zoom. Happy 20th Anniversary ADA!!