In NYC, the show goes on, and so does the discrimination
Her piece details a bad night out -- a $300 ticket to last Friday's Madison Square Gardens Paul McCartney concert, placing her in a seat where she could see nothing, because everybody, of course, stood up in front of her. Sound familiar?
The Prime of John Hockenberry: At Last, He's Mad as Hell
by Mary Johnson
from The Village Voice, August 4, 1992
One night, early in the run of Jelly's Last Jam, the Broadway musical about race and jazz, a manager at the Virginia Theater called National Public Radio reporter John Hockenberry a "fire hazard" and threw him out of the theater. Hockenberry's offense: He wanted to watch the play from his wheelchair, sitting in the aisle next to the inaccessible seat he had purchased.
A week later, Hockenberry, who is leaving NPR for ABC News, "came out"---as a wheelchair user and an angry man---on the op-ed page of The New York Times. "The art community in New York City has a reputation for being progressive," he wrote. "It is the forum and agent for challenging America's hardened perceptions about race, religion...and, more recently, AIDS and homophobia...The theater world likes to think of itself as a seeker of such challenges and is proudest when a play or musical becomes a vehicle for change." But, in his view, the theater world clearly hadn't dealt with the concept of disability rights.
"Two minutes before curtain time," Hockenberry continued, "the house manager emerged from a white door with a copy of the theater's `Policy for Disabled Patrons'" and told him his plan for reaching his seat---Hockenberry wanted to scoot up on his butt and have the usher swing his chair up the steps---wasn't possible.12
"I grabbed his collar and told him what he could do with his Policy for Disabled Patrons," Hockenberry wrote. As the audience watched, "I was easily overpowered and ushered---the only ushering I would experience that night---to the 52nd Street sidewalk."
Later, Hockenberry told me, "Jelly's Last Jam is a story about racism. But every day, every one of those cast members walks up those stairs, performs---even though they may have some vague belief that they're `pro-access'---they perform every night in a facility that systematically excludes. Yet they have some vague belief that `things are getting better for the disabled.'
"Sitting on that sidewalk, all I wanted to do is spray-paint DISCRIMINATION IS A FIRE HAZARD and toss a gas can through the front window."
In truth, Hockenberry's anger has been brewing for years. He remembers that, just a few days after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed two years ago, he had a run-in with the owner of the Brooklyn bike shop where he gets tires for his chair. (The ADA took effect on July 26.)
"`I see there where your president signed that law for you guys,'" now Hockenberry is imitating the Bike Shop Man.
"`You mean the Americans with Disabilities Act?' I say.
"`Yeah!' he says. `Things are going to be great for you guys!'
"So I say, `Well, it probably means you're going to have to ramp that front step of yours.' I'm even being friendly about it, kidding around. Because I actually thought he was interested in discussing it. I was absolutely wrong. Because, without a pause, the man says, `Oh, no. No, no, no. See, it's for new stuff. Not me. Just for new stuff.'"
The Bike Shop Man's mind-set---with its false understanding of the law---is what Hockenberry calls "the essential impediment to change in the United States: the whole thing is designed to opt everyone out." The Bike Shop Man "had come equipped with an entire mentality that opted him out of thinking he had to do anything to change---except under extreme coercion. Yet he got all the benefits of thinking that `hey, it's great for you guys.'
"And I was stuck with that little kernel of anger to swallow. I could just feel the clock start ticking in me, then and there."
Believing that the denial of access equals discrimination---something we have a right to be angry about---has been slow in coming for "crips," as politically hip disabled people have begun to call themselves. It took 16 years for Hockenberry to reach the boiling point. But it's not surprising, he says, given what crips are taught in rehab. "You're taught if you're angry, it's dysfunctional."
Rehab, he says, teaches crips "ritualized independence"---crip sports, computer programming, "and to live near a mall. Rehab lets you intellectually sort out the egregious abuses of your own personal freedom from the silly ones; what you're not allowed to do is think about the fact that you're committing yourself to a system that requires you to live near a mall." He says it teaches you to accept your cage---"to never go near the walls of the cage, so you can pretend it isn't there---to put up little crepe paper decorations on the walls of your prison."
Hockenberry was in college, majoring in music and math, when he injured his spinal cord in an car accident. Like other disabled people who want to get on with their lives, he was taught to cope; to figure out individual, rather than systemic, solutions to what were inevitably defined as "his" problems. He was good at this. Disabled people have to focus unrelentingly on getting from A to B. Hockenberry spent a good half-hour recounting to me just how one must do this if one is to get anywhere in New York in a wheelchair, on a subway system, and "not end up in a puddle of urine." That kind of concentration takes almost all one's energy. There's little left for high abstractions about rights, which can explain a lot about disabled people's silence on access issues. They're just trying to figure out how to get up the steps.
Shortly after rehab, Hockenberry was working as a reporter at a local public radio station when nearby Mount Saint Helens erupted "and suddenly there was the best freelance story in a decade in my lap." His coverage won the attention of NPR, where he soon went to work. "I went from `I can get a job!' to `I can be a reporter!' to `I can be a foreign correspondent!"
"I thought that what defined me was not disability but background and talent," he says. "The biggest joke played on me---and it's my own damn fault---is that I thought that, by accepting no limitations, I'd live in a world of no limits; that as my geographic reality enlarged, my sense of limits would go down. And just the opposite has happened."
As an NPR rookie, Hockenberry stayed away from disability rights stories, worried he'd "get sucked into being the `disability' reporter if I was the only one in the newsroom in a wheelchair." Now he says, "I needn't have worried. I don't think they ever wanted one." He tells of arguing with editors who insisted on covering the suicide of Elizabeth Bouvia, the California woman with cerebral palsy who in 1983 checked herself into a hospital and asked to be kept comfortable as she starved herself to death, as a right-to-die case. "Why do you just accept at face value her claim that, because she's a quad, she had no reason to live?" he argued, wanting to dig deeper and feeling, he says, that "for her to say `I'm disabled so I want to die' is a disgusting insult to everyone who's physically disabled. But no one would even take me seriously on it."13
He was once assigned a piece on the newly disabled son of his producer's friend "fighting back from paralysis." Hockenberry himself had to fight to keep the story from being a hero-overcomes-disability saga---the kind he's always feared he'd be saddled with. His innovative "little brother, big brother" version won a Peabody.
"I really came out in that one," he says, "though not at the top. At the start you don't know I'm disabled. You can do that in radio," he smiles. He'll no longer have that choice at ABC News, where he'll begin working as a reporter next month, doing stories on World News Tonight. In January, he'll become a correspondent for the network's new Sunday-night magazine show. "They aren't hiring me for the chair," he says, "but they see that to pretend the chair isn't there would be the wrong thing to do."
Hockenberry wanted the jobs all good reporters want, where the action is. In the last five years, that meant the Middle East. Morning Edition listeners regularly heard him reporting from the West Bank. Most, he says, had no idea he was in a wheelchair.
Living in the Middle East had a profound effect on him. It made him see how differently the U.S. approaches things. Here, everything is defined in terms of rights, which are supposedly protected by laws like the ADA. Which keeps people like Hockenberry from questioning the system, much as, he says, earlier civil rights legislation got African Americans to think in terms of discrimination instead of economic deprivation.
"I did the Virginia the way I did Gaza, the way I did Romania," he adds---but with vastly different results. "In Romania, it wasn't `about' rights. It was `wheelchair here, destination here'"---he jabs at spots on an imaginary map---"and `how do we do it?' If I could get over the obstacles, then nobody cared."
At the Virginia Theater, "that guy just decided I wasn't going in, and everyone then behaved as though it was impossible to get me in." There's rage in his voice. "If you spent a lot of time in the Third World, and you come back to the U.S., you realize the obstacles are just guys standing there, telling you it's impossible. And you know it's not. And you're supposed to eat that. Eat it and eat it and eat it. Until you blow up."
Hockenberry once worked at a home for the developmentally disabled. "Everyone would insist, `we are people first!' As though deep inside us there's this `person'---you---independent of the chair." Thinking that way, he says, "you end up denying any experience you have that's oppressive. You deny that the lack of access is important. You finally realize you're denying most of your existence, pretending everything is just fine---when it's not.
"People think our anger is bitterness that we're in these chairs; that we're bitter we drove into a tree or went to Vietnam. Or they think we can't fuck anymore and so we must be bitter about that---and that any kind of silly incident at a theater or in a restroom is just that, personal bitterness coming out."
After the op-ed piece appeared, the Virginia tried to get Hockenberry to take free tickets to Jelly's Last Jam. "And I wanted that more than anything; I just wanted it to be over." He admits now that he'd written the piece to get free seats.
But something had changed in John Hockenberry; something he had not wholly expected. He refused the tickets, seeing them as a bribe. "All the system needs is a dozen people to bribe," he says "and they can keep at bay millions. And they have a thousand with us crips; they've got everybody on the posters; everybody on the telethons."
For a long while, it seems, they had Hockenberry too: For the entire 12 years he was at NPR, there was not a restroom he could use. The doors to the stalls are too small for him to get through. "Every time I asked them to do something about it, they'd say, `Oh, God! We're really going to work on it.'" But they never did. (An NPR spokesperson conceded that the restrooms were not accessible, but said the radio network now has two accessible toilets.) Because NPR receives federal money, Hockenberry could have filed a complaint under the Rehabilitation Act. But like most crips, he never did. He simply endured. Swallowing. Or, in this case, holding it.
No longer: On June 30 Hockenberry filed a bias suit against the owners of the Virginia Theater. The angry man has arrived.
When I asked the Garden staff how they could, in good conscience, sell a ticket that afforded no possible view of the stage for a person who cannot stand up, their response was, "It's an old building."
What about the Americans with Disabilities Act and sight-line regulations, I asked them. Aren't you breaking the law? Again the reply, "It's an old building."
The final blow was when someone from the disabled services office accused me of swapping my ticket to, I suppose, get closer to the stage.
Wonder what will happen as an upshot of this? It reminds me that some things just keep on keepin' on -- like discrimination.
Back in 1992, John Hockenberry ran into similar attitudes at Broadway's Virginia Theatre. Different kind of incident -- he wanted to get out of his chair and sit in a "regular seat" and they wouldn't let him -- but the same attitude at its heart, seems to me.
John Hockenberry also wrote an op-ed in the Times about the incident. I couldn't find anywhere to link you to that piece for free -- but I did dredge up an article I'd written about it, which ran in the Village Voice not too much later.