Thursday, July 22, 2010

Long Week but Worth It

July 22, 2010
I will not write about the Spirit of the ADA barbeque, though I ate and enjoyed myself there. Also not about the event yesterday, The Justice for All awards, though there was an impressive lineup of politicians. I assume others will write about these. Instead I will write about the ADA event that happened today at the EEOC where I work. I worked right up until it started because we are still rushing around installing software for the laptop rollout. I and my fellow workers hoped for some sweet treats. I had a brownie and schmoozed a little. I am getting tolerably good at this, hm. I talked with both commissioners who were there and the new chairman Jacqueline Berrien. Of course the latter, Andy had to introduce me. They were welcoming. The commissioner, Chai Feldblum who organized the event was welcoming if busy. I sat at a table and got into 2 discussions, one about how to use a laptop at home, and the other about Charlton Heston as an attractive young man in Ben Hur.I got up to get soda and lost my place as the room filled up, but I could still see the speakers.

Intro remarks were by Jacqueline. Wade Henderson emphasized that his organization was called Leadership Conference on Civil and HUMAN rights for a reason. Awards were presented to several EEOC people who played key roles in ADA’s passage. The two blind awardees, I mention their disability because they were both funny and polished speakers, were Christopher Bell and Christopher Kuczynski. Mr. Bell has the most illustrious and long career. He was assistant to the late Evan Kemp, who was elected Chairman at the time of ADA in 1990. Mr. Bell is also VP of American Council of the Blind of Minnesota, and travelled widely to the 50 states about ADA’s employment provisions, answering questions, attending conventions and generally educating the public. He was funny too: the award presenter said ‘I assume this is your wife,’ and he responded quickly with ‘Never seen her before.

Two lively moderators, Christine Griffin and Chai Feldblum kept things moving. Christine has a lovely New Jersey? accent, is in a wheelchair, and pointed out former colleagues as she spotted them: “Didn’t you used to play at those poker games where we discussed regs?” She studied mechanical engineering and was going to make the big bucks designing medical equipment but had a detour when she decided to go to law school and continue working at the EEOC. She worked on LEAD. Twenty years went by “like a flash” she said and got teary talking about the teamwork she experienced. Chai Feldblum, EEOC commissioner who I met, took over from there to introduce the Panelists. We were behind time but the energy was positive and the lawyers had good strong voices and this was the best part. Several were lawyers who’d worked at EEOC on different disability ‘charging parties’ as the discriminated person is called. One of the most moving was related by Jean Kamp, an attorney, about someone who wasn’t there and in fact couldn’t speak for themselves. He is a person with autism and cognitive disabilities who worked for Chuck E. Cheese. He started work as a cleaning person there, and the first day the regional manager came by and said ‘whats he doing here?’ Luckily this person was just visiting, and the immediate boss wrote a sympathetic letter to EEOC that said, ‘he’s only been working a while but seems to work hard at it, and can’t you do something for this guy?’
A week later though the regional manager was back, and this time fired the man immediately. He had been proud of his job and really put his heart into it. Now he wouldn’t get of the house or even the car if got that far. He wouldn’t play with kids or date his girlfriend. He got 7000 in lost pay, and a very much larger, a million or so, in ‘compensatory?’ damages. I guess that is a good outcome, but I think I noticed more how much he valued his job and being given a worthwhile responsibility. Someone said later ‘work is good for the soul.’

James Hill, was another ‘charging party.’ I was glad he was able to come and tell his own story. He worked for a storage and maintenance company. He said the manager said “I’m ok” and refused to shake his hand, because he has extensive burns from when he rescued children from a fire. This same manager sent a note to upper management that read that “[Mr Hill] is handicapped, deformed or something and it’s clear he can’t get the job done.” Mr. Hill’s hours were then reduced and he was terminated shortly afterward. The EEOC brought suit on his behalf and obtained backpay and compensatory damages and to conduct ADA training to prevent further discrimination. Mr. Hill said work was his ‘therapy’ because there was a time in the past when he was too injured to do it so he put himself into it. He said it was a long and exhausting process to go to court and contributed his opinion of it. Chai responded that she was grateful to people that come forward and go through the process so others don’t have to.

The lawyers who worked with the EEOC in the intervening years of the ADA had good stories, but I will just end with the one who was the most moving in his remarks. John Mosby worked for EEOC from 1974 to 1980 and then in private practice after that. He settled a case where federal post office employees if disabled during their employment were placed in ‘rehabilitation’ positions which were barred from any promotion. 10,000 employees were affected. He had many remarks which I wish I had written down, but I did remember his closing. He quoted from TS Eliot who said
“We shall never cease from exploration/
And the end of all our exploring/
Will be to arrive where we started/
And know the place for the first time.”
He said that it is coming around again. First civil rights had to be fought for and won because they are not inevitably granted. And now disability rights face the same entrenched institutional prejudice. And I believe he said also that he could hear the footsteps of the younger generation of activists coming up behind and that’s a good thing. I hope you all found something inspiring in this major week of ADA events, and also will take something home to your communities' benefit, as well as in your own future careers.

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