Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
On the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we look at what the landmark civil rights law, which guarantees equal access to public resources and employment to disabled people has achieved and how much work remains. Dr. Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, assistant professor at the University of Michigan and a disabled person himself joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with disabilities act, or "A-D-A", which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. The civil rights law guarantees equal access to public resources and employment for disabled people.
I spoke with Dr. Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, assistant professor at the University of Michigan medical school and a disabled American, about where the law has succeeded and how much work remains to guarantee equal rights for people with disabilities.
Doctor, we're in this moment of reckoning where we have been thinking about different communities that have not had justice in the same way, that have been discriminated disproportionately, and people with disabilities are a group that we really don't think about in the context of these conversations. Tell me how you face discrimination, not just as a Black man, but as a disabled man when your accident happened to you.
Dr. Oluwaferanmi Okanlami:
I've often told people that I've been a Black man my entire life, but it wasn't until seven years ago when I had my spinal cord injury and entered into this disabled community and started living life from the other side of the stethoscope, as I call it, that I actively felt what it was like to be discriminated against and marginalized. Now, this isn't to say that I was not discriminated against as a Black man, but it's to say that the way that I am directly impacted by the lack of accessibility of our world is something that is– is a harder pill to swallow than some of the unconscious bias and some of the racism and prejudice that people can practice, but not as directly. Disability is ubiquitous. It does not discriminate based on race or gender or ethnicity or socioeconomic status. But there's an entire demographic of individuals that don't have equal rights and that don't have something as simple as the ability to enter a building because it is structurally not accessible for me to come in.
You ran All-American track at Stanford. What happened?
So, yeah, I was an academic All-American at Stanford before going to medical school at Michigan. And in my third year of orthopedic surgery residency at Yale, I had a spinal cord injury from a diving accident, and that left me paralyzed from my chest down with very minimal use of my upper extremities. But thanks to wonderful health care and opportunities and access that I had, I was able to go back to residency. I got a masters degree from Notre Dame. I was appointed to the St. Joseph County Board of Health, and now I'm back at Michigan as an assistant professor of family medicine and physical medicine and rehab.
After this accident, how did it change the way you looked at medicine, the way you looked at your patients?
You know, I– I will admit that I thought I was treating everyone the same. I thought that I was being inclusive and accessible in my practices. But I recognize that even as an orthopedic surgery resident who took care of people with spinal cord injuries, who took care of people with various disabilities, it was not until I entered that world myself that I saw how inaccessible things were. That's something that I don't wish it upon someone else to have that realization in the same manner, but it's something that I hope that from my experience that I can try to disseminate that knowledge to say, it shouldn't take the lived experience to then be able to acknowledge the access or the lack of access that other people in other communities don't have.
Give me an example of how the ADA impacts your life on a– on a day to day basis as you make your way through the day.
Yeah. So as many people know, the ACA is a civil rights law that tries to provide equal access to public services and then to private services that are offered for the public's consumption and giving equal access. So something as simple as curb cutouts, right? A ramp to go from the street to the sidewalk is something that we likely don't think about every day until you are then in a wheelchair and you can't get onto the block because there's nothing there that allows you to get in. So the number of times, especially in Michigan winters, that while we have curb cutouts, I have to park in one place and then go all the way down in the middle of the street until I can get to the curb cut out to enter a building that is right next to me, that is one of the examples of how the ADA sets the, sort of the minimum standard for what's necessary, but does not provide true full access. Now, this is not a slight to the ADA. It's actually an amazing law. But really, even in its inception, they said that this is just the beginning. This is not meant to be the ceiling. It's really meant to be a floor of basic needs.
And break that down for us. The ceiling versus the floor, because a lot of times people just stop at, well, we're ADA compliant now. We're done. We've got the ramp. It's over.
People want to discuss how well they've done with creating accessibility. But I– but I tell people that we don't realize the inaccessibility that still exists and people talk about– I made a comment about how I don't like "special needs" as a phrase, and someone misinterpreted that statement to say that "People with disabilities do have special needs and how dare you make it sound like our needs aren't important." But someone responded by saying, "Housing, transportation, equal access to public facilities. Those things should not be considered special." And so the ADA brings the conversation up, but it's up to each individual, each organization to say I shouldn't be doing the bare minimum because there are still people that don't have access based on that bare minimum and we should all be actually striving to create that access, rather than finding ways that we can just say we've done the bare minimum and that should be sufficient.
Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, I am not the example of the person who is best benefited by the ADA. I have a car that I drive with hand controls. I have multiple wheelchairs and scooters and devices that let me get around. I have people that support me with some of the work that I do. And– and that is because of the level of privilege that I don't even necessarily deserve, which does not account for all the people that still don't have access and that don't have fancy degrees or titles or support systems that then create what should be a basic access need.
But what's your best-case scenario? What's your most optimistic outlook, if we were able to actually live out not just what the ADA wanted, but progress as a society?
The best-case scenario is one in which I talk about intersectionality because disability is just one of the demographic groups that we can talk about. We could have had this entire conversation about me as a Black man. We could have had this entire conversation about me as an immigrant. We could have had this entire conversation about me as a man who was a son to my mother, who was a Black woman in this country, who has gone through her own experiences. So best-case scenario is one in which we don't judge or limit others based on difference, but we actually celebrate those differences and create equal access to all opportunities, regardless of what you look like, what your name sounds like, what your food tastes like, or where you live. And so that's best-case scenario that encompasses all of these marginalized and minority groups. And it's something that is far-reaching beyond disability or race alone, but includes those and, sometimes, starts with some of these movements.
Alright, Dr. Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, thanks so much for your time.
Hari, thank you so much for inviting us.
Watch the Full Episode
Support Provided By:
Additional Support Provided By: