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Feeling Good, and Doing Good

Last week, those of us for whom the Americans With Disabilities Act has meant so much celebrated the 23rd anniversary of its signing. If you’re reading this site, I can’t imagine I have to tell you this. But just in case, the ADA is the federal law that addresses discrimination against persons with disabilities and provides protection for equal opportunity for them in employment, services, public accommodations, commercial facilities and transportation. Along with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the ADA aims to use the power of the law to provide something like a level playing field for people with disabilities.

It’s not a universally beloved law, to be sure. Some disability advocates believed at the time it was enacted that the ADA would be largely toothless if the government failed to pursue enforcement. Many still believe it doesn’t go nearly far enough. And opponents of the law decried the effect it would have on the economy as businesses and governments scrambled to redesign and rebuild facilities in order to comply and thus avoid legal challenges. Plenty of people didn’t want to do so, people with strong voices and public platforms. (Google “Clint Eastwood” and “Americans With Disabilities Act” sometime.) Over two decades after it was passed, the ADA continues to provide legal challenges to those who remain inaccessible, from cruise lines to public schools to correctional facilities. The fact that ADA complaints are investigated by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division underscores just how important these accessibility issues are for those who encounter them. When I’ve written and spoken in the past that disability rights represent the next great human rights struggle of our time, the ongoing mission of the Americans With Disabilities Act is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

It can be hard to know when that mission is truly being accomplished, and when it just feels so. I’ve written in the past about what I’ve called “inspiration candy” but is more commonly called “inspiration porn”. (I suppose I should use that term if I want to generate more traffic via web searches.) We’ve all seen the stories, of the kid with a disability being allowed to suit up and run in a touchdown at a football game where the score is perhaps already a little lopsided, or being allowed to make a shot at the school basketball game in front of cheering crowds and, more to the point, television cameras.

I’m not talking about situations like the Miracle League, or sporting events specifically accommodating people with disabilities. (When I was in college, my university had the national champion wheelchair basketball team, and their level of skill and ferocity was like nothing I’ve seen before or since.) In those instances, opportunities have been created and nurtured, opportunities for determined individuals to find their own boundaries outside of those imposed on them by their impairments.

When persons with disabilities experience situations outside of their usual life, not as a progression into something real but rather as a chance to experience (even if artificially) the feeling of participation, that’s not inspiration porn. It might not mean a great deal in the long run, and it might not change much in the life of the participant. But it can bring happiness to someone for whom happiness can be fleeting, and that’s obviously a positive thing, as far as it goes.

But when these experiences are presented for show, when The Today Show (a chronic offender) runs a story, complete with treacle piano music and slow-motion shots and misty-eyed correspondents, that’s inspiration porn. When our children become the vehicle for the general public to feel like things are changing and it’s time to worry about something else now, that’s inspiration porn. When moments of personal achievement are turned into opportunities for the rest of us to feel like perhaps there’s no longer any need for that next great human rights struggle, because gosh, look how happy he is, THAT is the most damaging flavor of inspiration porn there is.

If you find those stories to be inspirational in a way that feels meaningful to you, I hope that’s the beginning of something, not the end. If you watch that story and see how much a disabled person’s life can be changed by moments of kindness and a short ride in a world that otherwise elutes them, I hope you’ll ask yourself what you might do, either in your place of business or the school your child attends or as a voter in your community, to change that rough world.

The Americans With Disabilities Act isn’t sexy, and it’s unlikely to bring a tear to your eye. But just imagine what the world would look like without it.

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