“Astonishingly, it is legal under Federal law for a restaurant to refuse to serve a mentally retarded person, for a theater to deny admission to someone with cerebral palsy, for a dry cleaner to refuse service to someone who is deaf or blind. People with disabilities – the largest minority in the U.S. – were left out of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. Twenty-five years later, discrimination against disabled people is still pervasive.”
Twenty-five years after these words were written, I find myself thinking about the person who wrote them, James Brady, who passed away on Monday. If you google him today, all ten of your first-page links will mention his work on gun control, and that’s fine, but that’s all the more reason to dedicate this little corner of the internet to a less discussed side of the man. If you were born after the 1980s, you might think handicapped ramps were standard back then — well, no, they weren’t. In the 1980s, my hometown, Berkeley, was installing handicapped ramps all around the city, and for some reason very few other cities were also doing this. I remember thinking, why the heck not? Way before I knew much about autism, I was already thinking, yeah, we do treat disabled people like crap, huh?
Brady went on:
“Congress has a chance to correct this injustice. The Americans with Disabilities Act is now before the full Senate, and President Bush and more than 200 national organizations have endorsed the bill.
“As a Republican and a fiscal conservative, I am proud that this bill was developed by 15 Republicans appointed to the National Council on Disability by President Reagan. Many years ago, a Republican President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, urged that people with disabilities become taxpayers and consumers instead of being dependent upon costly Federal benefits. The Disabilities Act grows out of that conservative philosophy. Today 66 percent of working-age adults with disabilities are unemployed and dependent on Federal subsidies. The Disabilities Act could save taxpayers billions of dollars by outlawing discrimination, putting disabled people on the job rolls and thereby reducing Government disability payments.”
What planet is this written from? What Republican takes out a column in the New York Times to agree with most Democrats? What member of either party takes a strong stand in a major news source to support a bill that is experiencing trouble with both parties? I mean it makes no sense…oh wait, this used to happen. Oh right, partisan gridlock isn’t inevitable. Sometimes I forget that.
“Experience has shown that no civil right has ever been secured without legislation. A law such as the Disabilities Act would insure that facilities and employers – public and private – maintain minimum standards of accessibility. The act would require installation of ramps, elevators, lifts and other aids in new private businesses and public buildings, and on newly purchased buses and trains. And it would prohibit discrimination in private employment, public accommodations, transportation and telecommunications.”
There’s something fascinating about the people who defend the President, isn’t there? I believe we care about them because they serve as a bridge of ordinariness between our Constitutional resistance to kings and our desire to defend the Constitution. In Wolfgang Peterson’s best American film, In the Line of Fire (1993), Clint Eastwood wrestles with the question for two film hours: would you really take a bullet for this man? In a way, the question is: under our Constitution, are some people really better than others? The answer: yes, sort of, but because of that, we must take care of the others. James Brady wasn’t Secret Service, but because his body saved the President, we unconsciously invest him with symbolism of patriotism, honor, and normal-person nobility. As a newly disabled person, Brady absolutely rose to the occasion. He didn’t just speak; he spoke out. He wasn’t just abled; he was able to convince Ronald Reagan to fight for gun control. That’s no mean feat.
“By breaking down barriers in stores and offices, it would enable more disabled people to purchase goods and services – and thereby strengthen our national economy. By breaking down barriers in public transportation, the act would allow more people with disabilities to be employed and participate in community activities. The act would free hundreds of thousands of citizens who are virtually prisoners in their homes because of inaccessible transportation and public accommodations.”
When Brady wrote this piece, in August 1989, the top video rental of the year was Rain Man, about living with autism, and also the sort of adult drama that Hollywood would never make now; another example of such an adult drama was the then-theatrical hit Dead Poets Society, where Robin Williams said, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” Between Brady’s op-ed piece and the passage of the Americans With Disabilites Act in 1990, Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for playing a cerebral palsy victim in My Left Foot and American networks were blanketed with commercials (back when four of them shared most of the audience) with commercials for Born on the Fourth of July, which ended with a blowing flag while America’s biggest star, Tom Cruise (as paraplegic Ron Kovic), said, in voice-over, “People say, America, love it or leave it. Well I love America…” I always loved that implied ellipsis…maybe it suggested “doesn’t mean we can’t make it better,” or maybe it was just a sort of space where Americans could mentally insert the Charlie Babbitts and especially the real-life Christy Browns and Ron Kovics and James Bradys who weren’t asking for pity, were in fact fighting for things way outside their self-interest, to make the world better for everyone. Between World War II (Helen Keller, FDR) and 1989, I don’t know that America knew too many disabled heroes. Brady helped lead the charge. (And was played in a 1991 HBO movie by Beau Bridges.)
“There are 37 million people in America who live with some form of disability. I never thought I would be one of them. Most people don’t like to think about disability at all. But disability can happen to anyone. In fact, as our population ages and medical technology prolongs life, many more eventually will be disabled.
“Since I took a bullet in the head eight years ago during the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, I have come to know the daily problems, frustrations and needs of those who live with disability. I have had to learn to talk again, to read again and to walk again. I have succeeded, and I know that everyone can learn to overcome the final obstacle to our equal inclusion in American life: prejudice toward people with disabilities.”
You know, it’s not like James Brady didn’t have other things to worry about. For one thing, there was his tireless work on gun legislation, leading a lobbying group that bore his name (and eventually succeeded in passing the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, more often called the Brady Bill, 20 years ago). For another thing, there was just getting up in the morning, considering he could barely talk or walk. A lot of people, after surviving what he survived, would have just laid around the house, collecting disability insurance and feeling sorry for himself. A lot of people would have turned down the job of Vice Chairman of the National Organization of Disability. But this wasn’t what Brady did. Instead, he provided personal testament to a fact he doesn’t even bother to cite here: disabled people are statistically more likely to show up to work and to handle detail-oriented projects. Eventually, Brady would work with the Marriott Corporation to hire more than 6000 disabled people, and Marriott told every newspaper who listened that their disabled were their best employees. Brady’s op-ed ended thusly:
“Passage of the Americans with Disabilites Act will increase the acceptance, dignity and full participation of citizens with disabilities. We do not want pity or sympathy. All we want is the same civil rights and opportunities that all citizens have. We want fairness, acceptance and the chance to contribute fully to our nation -just like everyone else.”
And The Americans With Disabilities Act passed in 1990! Thank you James Brady and President George Bush!
It’s strange to think that James Brady, the man who saved President Ronald Reagan from assassination, outlived him by just over ten years. Stranger to think that the man who shot them both, John Hinckley, may live another ten years or more. (God willing, Jodie Foster will live to be 100.) Brady’s words seem to come from another time, when people fought for change and the right thing even if that meant they would disagree with most of their friends. Like other people who worked for President Reagan – I’m thinking of George Schulz and Caspar Weinberger – he was an adult, willing to be persuaded from previous convictions by evidence, and willing to go on to try to persuade others. He led by example, his life and words suggesting that we can’t forget the less important people, especially when they may wind up helping us. Thanks, James Brady, for being a disabled mensch, and giving the world one more example of what a disabled person can accomplish. Today I salute a hero with both disabilities and abilities.