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Issues 2 & 3




Initiating public dialogue --
a job for disability advocates

By Jennifer Burnett

If you don't exist in the media, for all practical purposes you don't exist, NPR's Daniel Schorr once said. Although many would argue that this is an over-simplification, media as an institution in the United States is the most efficient and practical means of getting our message into the consciousness of mainstream America.

As more and more in the disability rights community acknowledge this, and use it to their advantage, public opinion can be shaped. But the disability rights movement is a long way from acknowledging the power of the media, let alone incorporating it into a systems change strategy in a meaningful way.

Take February's Supreme Court decision in Toyota Motors v. Williams. Press coverage immediately following the decision and for weeks afterward provided the disability community with an opening. It gave us a chance to initiate public dialogue about what constitutes discrimination, and how this decision will affect us all -- not only millions of workers but every American seeking protection under the ADA.

There was a flurry of news articles following the January 8 unanimous Supreme Court decision, and by January 9 the story was in the pages of just about every daily newspaper. The headline for New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse's story was like so many others being read at kitchen tables across the nation: "Justices Unanimously Narrow Scope of Disabilities Act."

The news, while dismal for the ADA, was not too distressing to the disability community. Prior to the decision, very few activists and advocates were paying a whole lot of attention to the lawsuit. It had gone to the Supreme Court, yes, but nobody really thought to organize around it. Or maybe they were just too busy. Following the decision, people started to notice and perhaps even have an opinion about the ramifications of this decision. And some in the disability community, recognizing media for exactly what it is, a medium for taking a message to a broader public, cared enough to do something about it in the pages of their local newspaper. They are pioneers who are breaking into the mainstream press by taking it seriously.

On the Sunday following the decision, the headline across the Commentary Page of the Philadelphia Inquirer, read "Supremes' disabling vote?" It featured an op-ed by Gil Ott, Director of Development at Liberty Resources, the Center for Independent Living in Philadelphia. Following news stories about the decision, Ott was contacted by the Inquirer's Commentary Page editor, John Timpane.

Ott has gotten to know local reporters and editors, and he values those relationships. He is both proactive and reactive in his approach, but recognizing that people in the media are, like most Americans, unaware of disability rights, he is teaching them about the issues in a reliable and common sense manner.

In telephone conversations and emails, or at meetings that may or may not be about disability issues, his message is clear as he works to change attitudes and shift people's beliefs from medical model to civil rights. Timpane, the editor, contacted Ott because he knows him. They have a mutual interest in poetry and literature, and Ott has worked to develop this and other relationships with reporters and editors through activities and endeavors outside of his job.

"I decided to take up his offer, because I detected a certain ambivalence towards this decision, among my friends in the disability rights movement and my colleagues at Liberty," said Ott, who noted that people talked more about the unfortunate fact that this case made it to the Supreme Court than they did about the impact of the decision.

When he called and asked Ott to write an opinion piece, Timpane said he recognized that it could affect him someday. "When he called, he was sort of freaked out by the decision," said Ott, "because he uses the keyboard so much and is at risk of carpel tunnel, he could be defined right out of protection from discrimination." This made it personal for Timpane, who went on to devote an entire page to the story, including another op-ed with a different view, and ask for readers to react in the Community Voices section.

Ott said the response to his opinion piece has been good. He focused on fear -- and his rhetorical twists demonstrated that civil rights are, indeed, being whittled away. His co-workers at Liberty read it, as did readers from across the country, requesting permission to reprint. Ott took on a subject that had little respect in the disability community, and made readers think about why it shouldn't be ignored. More than that, he explained it to the general public in a way they could understand. The impact will be measured when and if attitudes toward disability change.

Other pioneers in disability/mainstream media crossover wrote articles about the decision as well -- Michael Volkman in his Albany Times-Union column, and Jerry Wolffe, whose "Voices of Disability" column appears regularly in the Oakland (MI) Press. In his January 27 article, "Court puts its biases into ruling," Volkman pointed out that the Supreme Court justices are hung up on definitions of who is or is not disabled, rather than considering the more valid question of discrimination. Jerry Wolffe's January 24 article, "The Rights of all are eroded when the disabled lose theirs" expressed his hope that the unanimous Supreme Court decision would "revive the lethargic disability movement."

Not everyone can sit down and write an article, but there are many other opportunities for getting the disability rights message of integration, equality and rights into the pages of mainstream media. Each opportunity offers a chance to change an attitude. Responding to questions posed in the "Community Voices" section of your paper and sending letters to the editor are both quick and easy to do. Yet they're options whose impact is often underestimated. Research shows that these pages are widely read in local newspapers. Three weeks after the Williams decision, the Washington Post continued to publish letters about it, letters written in response to news articles as well as an opinion piece by Congressman Steny Hoyer. Stories like the Williams decision can have a long life if the disability community takes action.

Last fall during the oral arguments in Toyota Motors v. Williams, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor clearly showed her viewpoint when she made the statement that the ADA "was supposed to focus on "the wheelchair bound,'" not "carpal tunnel syndrome or bad backs!"

O'Connor is not really any different than many Americans. She's getting stuck on defining disability rather than considering the discriminatory practice of Toyota Motors. Her words should be a wake-up call to the disability community. Jerry Wolffe even says that "perhaps the able bodied will join the cause, realizing their rights are at risk, too."

But only if people in the disability rights movement let them know.

Read more about O'Connor's views on disability

Jennifer Burnett promotes disability rights in meeting planning, media, and training. She's currently Project Director of Pennsylvania's nursing home transition project.

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