Updated: Apr 12
Towards the end of my flight back to the U.S. I had a brief look at "41", a documentary about the life and career of George H.W. Bush (aka Bush Senior). I didn't get a chance to finish watching the film since we were about to land, but I did catch a few scenes of him interacting with people from a wheelchair. I wonder, if at the time that he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 into law, he understood what a transformational change this law would improve his own life in his later decades.
I'm glad more people understand the social model of disability, where disability is not interpreted as something wrong with the person, but it is the inaccessible physical environment that exacerbates and, at times, makes things more difficult. As I watched President Bush Sr. interact with standing folks who were six feet tall or even higher, I empathized with him on the awkwardness of that interaction. He once stood at 6'2'' and then, in his later years, living life from around four feet must've been quite an adjustment. For me personally, receptions with no chairs or happy hours at bars with no chairs where people stand around and chat are very stressful social situations. In these situations I am, at least, half the height of everybody. If I am not looking at their crotch, I am looking at their gluteus maximus (aka behind). Therefore, it's best not to sit too close because that would be awkward for obvious reasons... And yet, I cannot sit too faraway either because I am usually already half the height of the person I am interacting with. The voice from above has to travel down to me and that means the person interacting with me has to speak at a higher volume than they normally would with a standing person. So isn't it easier to just have chairs available at all social gatherings...?
Luckily for Bush Sr., he had the fortitude and power to sign into law one of the most progressive disability rights laws in the world that would make so many places and services more accessible and easier for others and himself in his later years. Perhaps he did not realize what a tremendous impact this law would have on his own life when he signed the ADA into law, but you betcha that it did.
So why am I sharing this with you? As I relayed to my audiences all around China on my recent tour with the State Department, just like walking life, disability is also a lifestyle that needs to be supported and maintained by corresponding infrastructures and healthy attitudes. And when you keep disability in mind when building infrastructures or providing products and services, you not only make the disability community’s life better, you also make your own life better. Let me give you a few examples to make this case more clear. For instance, text messaging was first created for the deaf and hard of hearing, but now look who doesn’t use it? In addition, curb-cuts/ramps were first created for people in wheelchairs, but it has been tremendously helpful for parents with strollers, travelers with luggage, transporting boxes, etc. and other zillion useful functions. Also, did you know Alexander Bell owned the first telephone patent, inspired by his deaf mom and wife? But look how prevalent cellphones are and what a big role they play in our lives now. Lastly, the Segway that is used so widely by law enforcement officers these days was inspired when inventing the stair climbing wheelchair.
When you think you are just being "nice" by showing charity or philanthropy towards people with disabilities in order to make something more accessible for “them”, you have no idea how these changes will actually shape your own personal life and make life better for the greater society. Why not create a society where it not only supports walking life, but all other forms of human life. That way, if you ever do enter another vantage point or shift to a different angle of living, it won’t be quite so big of an adjustment, isolating or traumatic due to physical environments and attitudes only supporting one angle of living. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “When it’s better for everyone, it’s better for everyone.” Let’s create a world that is truly better for everyone together.