What Disability Means Today, and Could Mean Tomorrow

ADA Laws & Regulations

Exploring What Disability Means Today, and Could Mean Tomorrow

Thirty years after the passage of the A.D.A., a Times project featuring more than two dozen articles looks at the many facets of the law’s impact and the work that still lies ahead.

A man wearing a black mask and latex gloves helps produce pages in Braille.[Image description: A man wearing a black mask and latex gloves helps produce pages in Braille.] The Clovernook Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired is creating a Braille edition of The Times’s special section on the A.D.A.Credit...Lauren Hall

By Amisha Padnani and Dan Sanchez
July 20, 2020

Disability is something that affects just about all of us at some point. If you aren’t born with a disability, you may temporarily become disabled through an injury or an illness. Many people also age into disability, or see a loved one, friend or co-worker live with it.

We considered that as we planned a special project on the legacy of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which was passed 30 years ago. As two of the lead editors on the project, we commissioned about two dozen articles and essays — publishing online Tuesday, and in a special print section this weekend to coincide with the anniversary on July 26 — that consider disability as a widely shared experience that intersects with many aspects of modern life.

Our sources included dozens of disability advocates who spoke candidly about their experiences, and many of the articles were written by well-known writers in the disability community.

The conception for this section started when Peter Catapano, a founding editor of the Opinion section’s Disability series, asked how we were thinking about our coverage of disability. We talked about highlighting the stories of important figures from the civil rights movement leading up to the passage of the A.D.A. in a special edition of Overlooked, our history project that tells the stories of remarkable people who never got a Times obituary.

“It’s become clear to me,” he wrote in an email, “that this community and its history in the U.S. is overlooked, even among the overlooked.”

But the 30th anniversary seemed to call for something even broader. And so in addition to exploring the history of disability, we explored questions about the future, asking, how are spaces designed for people with disabilities? How do the fashion and technology industries create tools for the disability community? What would happen if gene editing had the potential to eliminate disability from existence? We also asked actors and musicians how they felt they were being represented in the entertainment history.

In telling these stories, the writers used a set of language guidelines distinct from the rest of the The Times. For instance, asking our sources to tell us their preference between the terms “people with disabilities” or “disabled people,” and capitalizing the D or B in deaf and blind upon request in recognition of a person’s cultural identity.

To improve the experience for people using assistive technology, like screen readers, we provided image descriptions in the form of alternative text, or alt text. There are also audio versions of every article in this project. Some were recorded by voice actors through Audm, a company recently acquired by The Times, and some by the authors themselves. For the rest, we used text-to-speech software from Microsoft and Amazon.

Finally, the Clovernook Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired is creating digital Braille files so that each article can be read with an electronic Braille reader. The print section is also being made available in Braille on request. The National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled is making Braille and audio versions of the package available to its subscribers.

The design of the print section, with its large type, bold strokes and black-and-white color scheme, was intended to reflect the sense of urgency for the goals that the A.D.A. had yet to achieve. Themes that run throughout the section are depicted in containers that were inspired by the fliers and banners of the monumental 504 Sit-in, one of the most important protests in modern disability history.

The illustrations were done by Hayley Wall, a London-based artist whose work explores identity, gender and mental health. She cleverly uses negative space as a way to reframe our thinking of the challenges surrounding disability that society does not always recognize.

It’s not enough to look at disability only for an anniversary project. We plan to use the insights from this project to better incorporate disabled perspectives into shaping our coverage.

Disability deserves rich and varied coverage, and for that we want to hear from you. What would you like to know about disability and accessibility in America? How would you like The Times to cover these topics? We hope you will tell us, and we look forward to having this conversation with you.

Tala Safié contributed to this report.

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