Twenty-five years ago, when I was a college freshman, my university unveiled a program to address the needs of disabled students on campus. Since this was the same year that Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I can only assume that the new law was the impetus behind the effort.
I imagine that many facilities were updated and retrofitted. Crosswalks were given audible signals and ramps were installed on ancient buildings. All in all, there was a general increase in campus accessibility. From my vantage point as a student, however, the central feature of the campaign was a rebranding. Folks with disabilities were no longer “handicapped”; now they were “handicappers.” And the symbol of a person in a wheelchair was put in italics and given cartoony lines to indicate incredible speed. In those halcyon days of the early '90s, a guy in a wheelchair wasn’t chair-bound, but chair-empowered.
That particular symbol and its associated vocabulary are no longer to be found on campus, and I think the university today would hesitate before calling anyone a handicapper. But the thinking behind that lost campaign was sound, and it’s a point that Debbie Creamer at the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) makes in her article commemorating the 25th anniversary of the ADA: “Disability and theological education: Progress and possibilities.”
Like every other American institution, seminaries have now spent a quarter-century working to accommodate the needs of their diverse students. But it should be recognized that schools need to move, in Creamer’s words, “beyond architecture to attitudes.” As ham-fisted as it might have been, the "handicapper" campaign was just that: an attempt to reframe our thinking about disabilities.
As Creamer argues, complying with ADA requirements is just a start. Our communities need to go further and reframe their thinking about disabilities and the disabled. In particular, she points out that disabilities are a normal part of the human condition: our condition, not their condition. As faith communities whose perspective on that human condition is informed by the person and work of Christ, it's something to think about.
For more on accessibility, see “Disability on campus: The board’s role in assessment and planning.”
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