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61 3 Discrimination, Part 1 Before the advent of the disability rights movement, discrimination against a person with a disability, regardless of skill or circumstance , simply on the grounds that he or she was “handicapped,” was legal in the United States. This meant, for example, that public schools could—and routinely did—refuse to allow a child with a disability to attend classes, even though by definition they had an obligation to educate “every” child in the community and even though the child’s parents might still be obligated to pay school taxes. It meant that a landlord could refuse to rent to someone because that person was blind or deaf or because his or her spouse or child had a disability. It meant that employers could, and did, fire people who may have been productive employees, simply because that employee’s epilepsy or mental illness had somehow become known. Beyond this overt bias, people with disabilities faced (and to a large extent still confront) forms of discrimination unique to their situation. It may not be the intent of a business purposely to exclude someone who uses a wheelchair , but the fact that the business is located at the top of a flight of stairs effectively precludes such a person from shopping, visiting, or working there. Similarly, in the years before the movement, municipal mass transit systems believed that they were under no obligation to provide mainline access. In an era before curb cuts, even sidewalks were obstacles to navigating a wheelchair literally from one block to the next. Finally, people with disabilities were and sometimes still are subjected to another, more subtle type of discrimination in the form of condescension, the patronizing attitude that allowed non-disabled people to pat a disabled adult on the head or otherwise treat people with disabilities like children. Many of the early leaders of the movement endured years of such treatment before realizing that what they were experiencing was what we now term “ableism”—and that it was the product of societal misconceptions and attitudes rather than any personal shortcoming of their own. 62 chapter 3 Denise Karuth “If you’re blind, what are you doing in this class?” Like Barbara Oswald, Denise Karuth was born prematurely and emerged from her months in an incubator with damage to her eyes, rendering her legally blind. Like Johnnie Lacy, whose story is told later in this chapter, she wanted initially to be a teacher of children with disabilities. Thwarted in that goal by discrimination, she thought of seeking employment helping in the rehabilitation of people with visual disabilities. But here, too, she was stymied by the attitude —prevalent at the time—that people with disabilities were the least likely to know what was best for themselves and for those in their peer community. Karuth was born in 1954, in Buffalo, New York. She moved to Boston in 1976 and began her involvement with the disability rights movement there. She became a wheelchair user in the early 1980s because of multiple sclerosis. A self-taught expert on the issue of accessible mass transit, she was appointed by Governor Michael Dukakis to head his Commission on Accessible Transportation from 1984 to 1988. She was also a founding member and chair of the Massachusetts Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities and a former member and chair of the Massachusetts Statewide Independent Living Council. Karuth now works as a grant writer for the Stavros Center for Independent Living in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is studying to become an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ. When I was an undergraduate I decided to do a major in what was then called “exceptional education.” A lot of this came out of the way I’d been treated as a legally blind kid in the public schools. Basically I wasn’t offered any accommodation at all, at least not consistently. I was always a good student, but in math or science, if you can’t see the blackboard it’s a real problem, and in English or history, if you can’t read the books or take the tests in the allotted time, it doesn’t matter how hard you try to study. There wasn’t even the admission that I was at all disabled until the end of my junior year in high school, when I took the New York State Regents’ Exams in large print without time limits. I did really well! discrimination, part 1 63 I didn’t learn...


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