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CELL Research Seminar – The Hidden Stories Behind the Americans with Disabilities Act

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By Ian Peek

The first Centre for English, Languages & Linguistics (CELL) Research Seminar of this academic year was held at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) this week with an event entitled: An Uneasy Alliance: Scholarship and Activism around the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The research presentations, organised and chaired by Dr Lucy Burke of the MMU English Department, are open to all and offer a lively and engaging walk through developments in the field. Guest speaker at the event was Professor Lennard Davis of the University of Illinois.

Professor Davis’ multiple credentials include Professorships in English, Medical Education and Disability & Human Development, and directorship of the Project Biocultures think-tank. These credentials aside, however, Lucy Burke’s introduction emphasised Davis’ commitment to activism and to role of scholarship in effecting political change.

The talk focussed on the passing of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which empowered the largest US minority (1 in 5 Americans belong to this minority) by giving them the rights they have today. Professor Davis said: “Most interviewed politicians believe this Act would never pass today.”

The earlier 1964 Civil Rights Acts outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. As Davis noted, we are often invited to think of this in terms of “opening the door” for previously disenfranchised groups. The trickier 1990 ADA, had to legislate for “rebuilding the door completely”. The ADA placed substantial demands on businesses, necessitating changes in the provision of transport, public accommodation, telecommunications amongst other areas.  The scope and magnitude of this overhaul was perhaps the biggest obstacle for those seeking to pass the Act (and why many believe a similar Act would not be enforceable today).

Davis’ presentation set out to identify and then to interrogate two powerful narratives that have emerged around the passing of the Act.

First, he described the story of a key confrontation after weeks of impasse in which Whitehouse chief of staff, John Sununu (who was hostile to the Act) apparently exploded at a member of staff only to be faced down by an equally furious Ted Kennedy who retorted “You want to fight? Fight with me. You want to yell? Yell at me.” Sununu backed down, leaving the fiercest opposition to the bill defeated.

Second, Davis related the story of the ‘Capitol Crawl’. This referred to the decision on the part of a group of activists to abandon assistive aids and wheel chairs at the base of the hundred steps to the Capitol and to crawl up the steps in order to symbolise their struggle for justice. This, as Davis noted, offered an ‘uplifting triumphalist narrrative’ that associated the passage of the bill with this moment of activism.

The rest of Professor Davis’ paper explored how his commission to write a book about the passage of the ADA revealed a more complex and difficult set of circumstances than those encapsulated in the narratives above thus revealing the tension between his scholarly commitment to tell the truth and a wish not to diminish the power of these moments. Whilst the confrontation between Ted Kennedy and John Sununu seemed to provide a shift in momentum which helped the bill to pass, the truer story of the bill’s success unfolded behind different doors.

The so-called “Bagel Breakfasts” gave a voice to disability activists barred from the proceedings in the Capitol. This hush-hush opportunity allowed political voices to carry the activists’ influence forward. The logjam which stopped the bill progressing was reputedly “broken over bagels”.

While “The Capitol Crawl” provided an iconic image for the ADA struggle, the bill was already being signed as the protest took place. Those signing the bill were unaware of the protest, which was taking place at a building already wheelchair accessible! The event was under-reported by the media of the time, though retrospectively garnered more attention.

Professor Davis’ talk provided a fascinating insight into the hidden story of how the Americans with Disabilities Act came to pass, delivered with a touching regard for the events of the time. A fuller discussion is available in his book Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How The Americans with Disabilities Act Gave the Largest US Minority its Rights.

There are two more CELL events scheduled this term:

November 11th – Poetic Playground – Contemporary Peak District Poetry (David Cooper)

December 16th – New Research in Critical & Medical Humanities (Lucy Burke & Gavin Miller)

For more information, contact Lucy Burke at

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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