A True Story of Life before the ADA, in Memory of Everyone Who Fought for the Law

Red, white, and blue graphic that says, "ADA 32. 1990 to 2022. Americans with Disabilities Act. Celebrate the ADA! July 26, 2022."

In order to put the rights we now have through the Americans with Disabilities Act in context, I’d like to share a “pre-ADA story,” something that happened to me right about four years before it was passed.

In 1986, I had graduated from social work graduate school at the top of my class but was having great difficulty finding work. In fact, I had gone on 22 job interviews by the time I finally found my first job. I have cerebral palsy and walked with crutches then. While I looked for work, I was volunteering at an Independent Living Center (ILC), and the Director, Doug Usiak, had offered to hire me as soon as they had at adequate funding to do so. The budget of the center was about $500,000.

Doug Usiak
Doug Usiak

An acquaintance of mine, also a professional with a college degree who I will name George, has severe cerebral palsy and was volunteering at large national nonprofit. They had about a $30 million budget and he was trying to get hired there but they told him that he was only good enough to volunteer. Eventually he got annoyed and had a bumper sticker made for the back of his van that called out the nonprofit on their hiring practices. He then spent eight hours a day driving around the city, making sure that everyone saw his bumper sticker. I had heard about this and thought it was funny but didn’t do the same because we didn’t have any civil rights regarding private employers in those days.

One day I had just finished getting the ILC’s newsletter ready for shipment, which at that point was all on paper. I sat down to rest for a moment on a couch that was outside Doug’s office. The phone rang and Doug’s administrative assistant said it was the Executive Director of the large nonprofit.

Doug put the call on the speakerphone and said, “This is Doug Usiak. What can we do for you?”

What I heard next floored me. The Executive Director was asking if we would hire George.

Our Director was briefly shocked, but he quickly recovered. “I understand what you’re saying…but I can’t hire him. You know my budget, and on top of that every cent is committed. There is not a penny available. Why don’t you take that $30 million budget and hire him yourself?”

The rapidly turned into a screaming match between the two Directors. Ultimately, there was a pause and the Executive Director said quietly, “Hire him. You’ll figure it out… You always do… But whatever you do, do it quickly.” And he hung up the phone.

I was so shocked I felt like I could not breathe. What choice would Doug make?

A few minutes later he called our Accountant on the intercom. “Get in here! Bring the financials! We’ve got to add someone to the payroll. We’re going to hire another advocate!”

Our Accountant said, “Are you out of your X#%$X mind? Didn’t we go over this a few days ago? We have nothing, no money that’s not committed! Weren’t you listening to me?”

And then Doug said something I’ll never forget, “We will find a way…we always do.”

And George was called, and told he had a job. He worked on state and federal policy and was an excellent employee. Eventually, he got a job with the government, and he got married, and he’s about to retire on a nice, fat pension.

Oh, by the way, perhaps I should update you on a couple of those “plot twists” earlier in the story. Remember when the national organization said they wouldn’t hire George?

Well, George made an impact with his bumper sticker anyway. They hired a certain social worker who was looking for work but couldn’t find a job. Yes, it was me. It was the first professional job of my career! After a while, I was offered a better job back at the ILC about a year later — Doug kept his promise!

And perhaps you’re wondering: How did Doug make payroll when he made the seemingly “stupid” decision to hire another employee that he couldn’t afford? Well, we heard that he took his service-connected veteran’s pension check and deposited it into the payroll account for each month so the agency could make payroll until it had enough money to survive without the extra help. And four years later, the ILC held a letting writing campaign for the passage of the ADA and worked hard in other ways for its passage. When the law was passed, Doug was invited to the White House for the signing ceremony, because he and George were instrumental in coordinating the ADA passage efforts.

Happy ADA anniversary, everyone!

Susan Picerno is the Maryland Work Incentives Coordinator for Independence Now.

A True Story of Life before the ADA, in Memory of Everyone Who Fought for the Law
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