I was asked specifically to talk about opposition to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that’s a relatively easy thing to talk about in a brief period of time because there wasn’t very much opposition.
The ADA literally sailed through Congress with surprising little opposition for such a sweeping civil rights law—for what Ed Berkowitz nicely described as “America’s most ambitious civil rights law.” Now, I’ll divide the opposition to the ADA into three groups: there was the NFB, the NFIB, and the NHABE. So the NFB, the NFIB, and the NHABE.
So first, what’s the NFB? Well, that’s something called the National Federation of the Blind. Not all disabled people were happy with the ADA, and the National Federation of the Blind was the rare group that spoke out publicly against the bill. The NFIB worried about the bill’s language on accommodations. An important part of the ADA is to say that reasonable accommodations have to be provided to people with disabilities.
So what’s an accommodation? This wheelchair ramp to get up to the stage is an accommodation. A ramp on a building and in the classrooms here at Hofstra—that’s an accommodation, because if buildings aren’t accessible, then how can students in wheelchairs become participants in the opportunities that Hofstra provides. A sign-language interpreter is an accommodation. For a student with dyslexia, maybe extra time on a test is a simple accommodation that helps level the playing field for that person. For somebody with a different type of learning disability, it might be living on a quiet floor in a dormitory so they’re able to concentrate and study. These are simple accommodations, things that are easily done, that are inexpensively done, things that allow people with disabilities to become full participants on a college campus like this, or in the workplace, and in our society in general.
So the members of the National Federation of the Blind have a rather strong and somewhat iconoclastic view of accommodations: They don’t like them. Why not? Well, they reject special help because they fear that taking help will cause sighted people to conclude that blind people are inferior. If they take these accommodations, therefore they must be inferior. So, for example, members of the National Federal of the Blind objected to crossing beepers at traffic signals; they object to voices on elevators that announce a floor number. Their argument is that this kind of help further stigmatizes blind people. If sighted people think that they can’t figure out what floor on an elevator to get off without some mechanical voice reminding them, then are we going to think that somehow they’re going to be incapable as employees, incapable as colleagues in school, incapable of making their way in the world?
So you may remember that, around the time that the ADA was being debated, members of the federation were insisting that they be allowed to sit, for example,