Thirty Years of the Americans with Disabilities Act

In the first #AccessibleAnthro column of 2020 we highlighted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by suggesting some ways to support accessibility in academic and practicing spaces, and to continue our barrier-breaking actions as individuals and as a society. On July 26, we marked the thirtieth anniversary of the ADA by asking disabled AAA members three questions about the ADA and anthropology. Thank you to everyone who participated; here are a few highlights.

What does the ADA mean to you?

A long struggle. The ADA was hard won and has been and still is under attack. It is far from perfect but is our civil rights protection. Its operationalization is problematic. Regulations are so arcane that it only protects an idealized disabled body. Whole questionable industries have developed around the ADA from the disability accommodations gatekeepers to the lawyers suing small restaurants for grab bars two inches lower than “standard” when neither people nor wheelchairs come in standard heights and those resources should go to engineering adjustable height grab bars. The ADA is only a floor in a tall-ceilinged room.
Devva Kasnitz, executive director, Society for Disabled Studies

I am a child of the ADA. The ADA  not only enabled me to become an anthropologist, but means that I am surrounded by one of the first cohorts of graduate students who grew up with educational access and are able to bring our diverse perspectives to academia.

Aron S. Marie (he/him/his), PhD candidate, Department of Comparative Human Development, University of Chicago.

The ADA is a milestone in disability legislation but it has been far from a panacea. It has broadened the definition of disability and created greater educational access for some. The quality of that access has been exceedingly uneven, though, and the employment statistics even more dire.

On a more personal note, I entered graduate school in the mid-1970s, long before the passage of the ADA. As I prepared to do fieldwork, some faculty questioned whether a disabled person would be capable of such an endeavor. After two years of fieldwork, I returned from abroad and gained some respect from faculty who had doubted me. Yet a few continued to question how I managed in my daily life and one told me I could not be his teaching assistant because I was unable to carry his books to the classroom.

Sumi Colligan (she/her/hers), professor emerita, Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

What does a more accessible AAA and anthropology discipline mean to you?

Applying for teaching positions was no less complicated [than fieldwork during graduate school] because I had to “out” myself before the job interviews, explaining the personal assistance I would require during the interview processes. Although my CV stated that I had completed my junior year of college in France and 21 months of ethnographic research in Israel, in one instance, I was actually asked whether I was capable of flying. I think that the faculty person conjured an image of me being taken off the plane on a stretcher. When I did land my first academic job, I was told that the position would be mine if I could demonstrate my ability to unlock the office door.

While I do believe we have made advances since that juncture, and that the ADA has facilitated these advances, I would aver, nonetheless, that the academy and our anthropological profession are still suffering from a limited imagination when it comes to fostering the graduate school and postgraduate careers of those with diverse mind-body and intersectional life experiences.

—Sumi Colligan

A dream. A hope? A future. An institution that has less reason to apologize for forgotten accommodation requests or plagiarized disability policy statements. First, “accessibility” is about far more than disability. Disability oppression and ableism likes company. Over half of Black disabled American youth are arrested by their late twenties. Where are the Black disabled anthropologists? Could they succeed if they didn’t study race or disability? Allies are wonderful, we are developing a concept of the “disabled family” and the “disabled environment,” but the anthropology career on-ramp and off-ramp for all but the most carefully managed usually non-immediately apparent disability remains steeper than in any other social science or humanities field.

—Devva Kasnitz

What would you like nondisabled AAA members to know?

It’s time to stop thinking of access as something that only applies to undergraduate students, and take seriously the needs of disabled graduate students, postdocs, and faculty. Until we reform the working environment in our institutions we are missing out on the voices of disabled anthropologists and the diversity of perspectives we bring to studying the human condition.
—Aron S. Marie

All AAA members need to know that they are complicit in disability injustices in AAA and anthropology. I would love to ask, When did you last encourage or fund a disabled grad student to go alone to a ‘foreign field’ for our ritual baptism? When did you last privilege a job candidate with foreign field experience? How many disabled anthropologists under 60 can you name in 10 seconds? Do you assign their publications and invite them to join your events? Have you ever filled out a AAA conference disability accommodation form with “I don’t know ASL so I need an interpreter for a meeting.”? Do you know AAA now has a staff member dedicated to disability access? If her efforts are not supported and don’t ripple out to your AAA subgroups and to your places of employment and funding, I will hold you accountable.”

—Devva Kasnitz

Legal mandates alone will not provide a foundation for disciplinary change unless we all assume the responsibility of enlarging our collective resourcefulness with regard to being more flexible and inclusive. Of all disciplines, I would hope that a discipline that has, as part of its mission, to imagine and record distinct but interlocking and shifting lifeways, injustices, and inequalities, would be primed to embrace this task, not as a burden but as a benefit.
—Sumi Colligan

Nell Koneczny is the AAA’s accessibility and meetings coordinator.

Find out more about our dedication to moving beyond the ADA in the accessibility and accommodations section on the AAA website. These pages outline the supports available from AAA and the expectations of event attendees that will help us cultivate an accessible culture within the Association.

Cite as: Koneczny, Nell. 2020. “Thirty Years of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Anthropology News website, October 2, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1512

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Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approve. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.