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Moments in Disability History 20

Stories of Discrimination

The path to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was paved by storytellers, not just one or a few, but thousands of storytellers from cities and towns across the nation.

The following is an example, one of over 5,000 stories that were submitted by citizens and organizations across the country demonstrating the range of discrimination issues faced by people with disabilities and the many barriers that limit their ability to actively participate in their communities:

On May 28, 1988, Lisa Carl, a young woman with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair, wanted to see a favorite film at an accessible theater in Tacoma, Washington. The theater manager refused to accept her $1.00 admission and the theater owner, who was called by an advocate on Lisa's behalf, said, "I don't want her in here and I don't have to let her in."

Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, says science backs up the long-held belief that a story is the most powerful means of communicating a message.2

Peter Guber, author of Tell To Win, says that stories can also function as Trojan Horses. The story is actually just a delivery system for the teller's agenda, a trick for sneaking a message into the fortified citadel of the human mind.3

Justin Dart, widely recognized as the "father of the Americans with Disabilities Act", was aware of the power of storytelling twenty-five years ago. He knew that people with disabilities and their families had powerful stories to tell – stories about discrimination, segregation and inequality; and that these stories could impact change.

Between 1988 and 1989, Justin Dart held 62 public forums in 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Guam to collect stories of discrimination. His intent was to create a network of national support for passage of the American with Disabilities Act. The forums, however, served as his Trojan Horse for sneaking the message of equal rights for people with disabilities into the minds of the American public. The forums provided an opportunity for people with disabilities and other advocates to publicly disclose and express their frustrations and outrage at discriminatory practices.

A total of 5,000 stories were collected and compiled into a "diary," the Trojan Horse to end discrimination against people with disabilities.

Justin Dart and Yoshiko
Justin Dart and Yoshiko Dart

View a slide presentation of forum participant photos

Photos courtesy Yoshiko Dart

The stories collected by Justin Dart are from a vast spectrum of Americans with disabilities, some of whom became leading advocates on disability rights, including the story of United States Representative Tony Coelho from California

In addition to Lisa Carl, Justin Dart heard these stories of discrimination from ordinary American citizens:

  • The Alabama man who is deaf and was denied a modeling job because of his disability.
  • The Alaskan parent revolt, referred to as the "Diaper Rebellion," in protest of the cessation of Medicaid coverage for diapers for families caring for children with severe and multiple disabilities in their homes.
  • The Massachusetts woman who uses a wheelchair but could not join her neighbors at a preliminary hearing in their lawsuit seeking to prevent the construction of a 29 house subdivision because the second story courtroom was not accessible.
  • The parents of children with Down Syndrome who were successful in getting a Vice President to apologize for describing critics of an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union as "members of the extra chromosome set."
  • The Missouri man who uses a wheelchair, jailed for 95 days because of speeding tickets, but whose wheelchair was taken away because it could not fit through the cell doorway.
  • The Mississippi state employee on a business trip who was charged an extra $10 for requesting an accessible room.
  • The Nebraska University associate professor of communications who was denied a place on a speakers' bureau because he stutters.
  • The Illinois school system that disciplined students with developmental disabilities or mental health issues by locking them inside wooden boxes for up to 30 minutes.
United States Representative Tony Coelho
United States Representative Tony Coelho

Interviewed for It's Our Story
Interviewed for It's Our Story

It is fitting and easy enough to celebrate the witness of leading disability advocates and their influence on what became the ADA but it was the thousands of ordinary Americans with disabilities and their families who were prophets of the ADA. Justin Dart's collection of stories and Scott Cooper's It's Our Story remind us that the prophets we most need to remember are hidden in plain sight among us.

Justin's "diary" has become part of It's Our Story, a mixed-media digital history archive that houses the most comprehensive collection of videos, photos and documents regarding life with disability in America. From 2005 to 2013, Scott Cooper drove over 160,000 miles, and interviewed and collected the personal testimonies of more than 1,300 people from over 250 locations for the It's Our Story archive.

It's Our Story

1From ADA to Empowerment, The Report of the Task Force on the Rights and Empowerment of Americans with Disabilities, October 12, 1990, pp. 20 and 22

2Jonathan Gottschall teaches English at Washington and Jefferson College and is the author The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. His work has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among others.

3Peter Guber is Chairman and CEO of the multimedia Mandalay Entertainment Group. Prior to Mandalay, Guber was Chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, Chairman and CEO of Polygram Entertainment, Co-Founder of Casablanca Record and Filmworks, and President of Columbia Pictures. Guber was the producer or executive producer of films that garnered five Best Picture Academy Award nominations, winning for Rain Man.


Parallels In Time: A History of Developmental Disabilities
V. The Reawakening: 1950-1980 D. Litigation and Legislation

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