Before ADA: My Dad’s Life at the Intersection of Disability, Race, Class, and Gender
A Black woman reflects on her father’s ‘disability’ and why she never noticed it until the end of his life
The day my mother died, my eighty-four-year-old stepfather told my wife the story of how he and I met. It was a story that I’d never heard before. Apparently, five-year-old me smiled, walked up to him, and simply took his hand. But today, a few days after the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I am struck by the fact that I never noticed that Dad had a physical disability until he was well into his eighties.
I only began thinking about Dad’s physical abilities because he insisted on living on his own after my mother died. He walked with a cane, and I worried that if he fell down, he couldn’t hoist himself up off the floor. But I respected his need to remain independent. Independence was something Dad was taught from an early age.
Dad’s left arm was injured by forceps during his birth in 1929 and back then, no remedy would be offered for a working-class, Black infant. As a result, his arm was paralyzed. Along with his three brothers, Dad tended to the small animals and crops and help build things on his grandparents’ subsistence farm in Sayreville, N.J. There was no pity and in his predominantly White schools, there was no harassment. Dad was treated like everyone else.
One thing that marked Dad as different was the frequency with which he went to the hospital. Until he was sixteen, Dad was taken from class twice a week and driven with other children with disabilities to Middlesex General Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J. for physical therapy. Dad’s left arm was exercised and massaged with cocoa butter. As a result of missing lessons for several years, Dad was left back twice. Dad blamed himself for his low grades — not the education system that isolated him and expected nothing from Black boys with physical disabilities.
The summer after his freshman year, Dad underwent the first of two surgeries that irrevocably changed his life. His left arm was operated on so that it would remain in the shape of a L. The following summer, his left wrist was operated on so that it was permanently bent inward. Dad was elated because these procedures made it possible for him to be like other teenaged boys — he could hold a mitt with his left hand and play baseball! Dad loved baseball and idolized the Negro League players. Being able to play gave Dad entrée to a social life he couldn’t have imagined.
I never noticed that Dad’s left arm was six inches shorter than his right arm, that his left arm was immobile, and that his left hand resembled a crab’s claw because Dad did everything non-disabled people do. By the time he met my mother in the 1970s, Dad was single-handedly raising four boys from a previous marriage. He was the Chief of Maintenance at a health clinic in Staten Island, N. Y. Dad was President of the Staten Island Softball Old-Timers Club — a group of mostly Italian- and Irish-American former baseball players over forty who got together to play softball and drink beer.
In addition to cooking family breakfasts and dinners, Dad always had some woodwork project underway. I vividly remember the large, wooden dog house he built for our beagle. Then he made a rectangular wooden bench with a rust-colored seat cushion. Another time, he made a magazine rack and a doll house for a woodworking class he took at the College of Staten Island at age fifty-five.
Dad also had rose, fruit, and vegetable gardens that he tended most weekends. In the summer, Dad would call me out to the backyard. “Lourdes!” Teenaged me would roll my eyes, sigh, and answer, “Yes?” But I knew Dad wanted me to help him carry in his bounty of fruits and vegetables. I’d trudge outside to find Dad kneeling in the soil, with dirt on his forehead and bifocals, grinning from ear to ear, proud of his tomatoes, strawberries, and cucumbers. With a trowel dangling from his left hand, Dad’d guide me in harvesting his crops.
I never noticed that the left sleeves of Dad’s coats, jackets, and long-sleeve shirts were hemmed to the length of his arm. Never gave a thought to how he always put his left arm into his jackets and coats first, and then did a kind of a shuffle-shake movement to put his right arm into the corresponding sleeve. It never dawned on me that cooking, sweeping, sawing wood, and getting dressed might be challenging with a paralyzed arm. I suspect it’s because Dad never talked about his ‘disability’.
By the time the ADA was signed, Dad was sixty years old. He had lived a long life modifying things for himself and being treated like non-disabled people. Walking down the street or shopping at Korvettes, invariably, we’d be stopped by random White people who recognized him. “Hey, Robby!” they’d shout and Dad’s face would light up. It was as if he were the Mayor of Staten Island! Dad never denied anyone the opportunity to catch up. He’d laugh at their jokes, remind them of past capers, ask after their loved ones, and then tell them to “take good care now.”
Dad never experienced the cultural and political shifts that made the ADA possible nor those that followed in its wake. I doubt he’d heard of Brad Lomax or Don Galloway — Black male disability rights activists who fought for a more just, accessible world. I don’t know if he’d heard about the 1977 504 Sit-Ins, the Gang of 19 protest, or the Capitol Crawl. But I imagine if he had, Dad would’ve chuckled and shook his head. Dad was a fan of the underdog — think the Mets and the Jets — and saw himself as one of them because he was a Black man.
Three years ago, one spring afternoon, Dad said something that surprised me. We were visiting the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. He was eighty-seven at the time and in passing, Dad referred to himself as “handicapped.” Scandalized, I said, “Dad! You can’t say that word now. People… have disabilities.” Dad shrugged and said, “But that’s what they called us.” He gripped his cane handle a bit tighter, and continued on with whatever he was saying, as we slowly strolled in the Rose Garden with hundreds of roses waking up around us. As usual, Dad humbly juggled the world’s ableism with a strong sense of self in a way that worked for him.