No one would look at my 3 foot 2 inch, 48 pound body and think, “She must be a boxer.” In my mind, however, I am a heavyweight contender fighting a never-ending round of Tamara vs. Accessibility.
If you asked me a few years ago what the Americans with Disabilities Act was, my response would have been sub-par. All I knew was that the Act was put in place to help people like me in some vague way. I thought obstacles and injustices were just things I would have to learn to embrace. Nowadays, however, I’m becoming increasingly aware of my rights as an individual with a disability.
During elementary school, I knew it felt unfair that I was the only student who couldn’t go on class field trips. A special bus couldn’t be ordered just for one person. Did I feel, though, that not being able to partake in school activities was a violation of my rights? Absolutely not.
Then there was the case of the guidance counselor who sent me to an inaccessible school to take my SAT’s, a tremendous match to fight. I got off the Access-a-Ride van and saw a line of students standing on what looked like a mountain of stairs leading up to the front door. I went up and down the line on that frigid day and asked if anyone had ever seen a person in a wheelchair enter the building. Everyone said no. In what seems (in retrospect) like fate, a custodial worker poked his head out of the door, and I shouted and waved my arms. “Hey! Hey!” I said, “Can you please help me?” He made his way down the stairs and looked at me with surprise. I told him that I needed to get inside to take the SAT’s. He told me to hold on, and as the line slowly began to disappear, I waited for him to return. When he did, he brought a wooden plank. We went halfway around the school and came upon a door that he opened with a key. He then put the plank down and held it with his feet. I didn’t think the wood looked strong enough to support me, but I held my breath and pushed forward. The plank made crackling sounds beneath me, but I made it into the building. The custodian told me to find him when I was done. I probably giggled to myself at that point, wondering how I’d find him in a school I’d never been to and didn’t know how to get around. (The guidance counselor who sent me on this adventure didn’t want me to take the SAT’s in the first place. He told me I should go to a two-year college where the test wasn’t even required because it would be easier for me there.)
Fifteen years later the fight continues. Having to crawl on the floor of a restroom because the “accessible” stall is not big enough for my wheelchair is more common than I care to admit. At one popular restaurant, I had to go through the garage of an adjacent building in order to get to the ladies’ room. On vacation with a friend who is also in a wheelchair, a stewardess told us that we shouldn’t be traveling alone because it wasn’t safe for people like us. Later, once we had reached our cruise boat, we were told that we might not be able to get off the ship at our destination. In graduate school, there was one restroom that I could use in the entire six-story building where I took classes, and it was on the first floor and had a huge step in front of the door. The wheelchair lift outside the building never worked.
The list of matches and re-matches goes on and on. The difference now is that I’m no longer willing to accept defeat. I am becoming aware of what just what the ADA mandates, and that I have the right to stand up for certain things in a court of law.
Tamara Morgan is an art therapist and social worker in the South Bronx and a graduate of NYU’s Steinhardt School for Art Therapy. Diagnosed at birth with osteogenesis imperfecta, a condition that makes her bones abnormally fragile, Tamara writes about conquering NYC as an individual with a disability.