Besides providing a proper education to students with disabilities, mainstreaming them serves another important role: It creates visibility.

Pre-ADA, students may not have been exposed to any classmates with disabilities. Today, that's changed — and that's a good thing for everyone.

"If you put all disabled kids into a school for disabled kids, then the kids don't learn about the real world," says Colleen Starkloff. "They only learn about themselves and each other. But they don't even learn to socialize or assimilate or integrate with non-disabled society. But the real world is much bigger than people with disabilities. And the best way to live a life with dignity and full equality is to live with everybody else and do what everybody else does — and that is, go to work, go to school, have a family, be part of the society."

Easter, 1985: The author, right, with her mother, Gerri, and younger brother, Jeff.
Easter, 1985: The author, right, with her mother, Gerri, and younger brother, Jeff.
Married for 35 years, Max and Colleen Starkloff are tireless advocates for people with disabilities in St. Louis.
Jennifer Silverberg
Married for 35 years, Max and Colleen Starkloff are tireless advocates for people with disabilities in St. Louis.

During college, I was an intern at Alternative Press magazine in Cleveland, which introduced me to the (not as glamorous as you think) world of music journalism. After college graduation, I spent three years in Boston freelancing and placed articles in the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, Amazon.com and Billboard. It was my freelance work for papers such as Cleveland Scene and the Kansas City Pitch that put me on RFT's radar, however — and in June 2005, I took the music editor position here.

I didn't grow up thinking that my disability limited me, either professionally or socially. Part of this was because of my upbringing. My parents never coddled me or treated me like I was fragile; I was their daughter, not their disabled daughter. But I think my mindset also stemmed from being immersed in mainstream schools and society. And there was no question I had every right to be there — with the passage of the ADA, people with disabilities had the right to fully participate in society. Gradually, seeing someone using a wheelchair, walking with a cane or using a Seeing Eye dog wasn't something extraordinary.

Max and Colleen Starkloff, who have been married for more than three decades, laugh about an experience they had while Christmas shopping in 1973. So they could buy gifts for each other in secret, the couple separated for an hour — and in parting, Colleen gave Max a kiss.

A woman passing by saw the gesture, and she was so surprised that she ran right into a jewelry counter.

"I mean, she just walked right into it!" Colleen recalls. "The reason was — she was staring at us. She hadn't seen anybody kiss somebody with a significant disability like Max. He was in a power [wheel]chair, he was very handsome, and I kissed him.

"But that was so odd to this lady — it was such an anomaly — that she got distracted, and she walked right into that jewelry case and fell over it. And I said to Max, 'What's up with that?' And he goes, 'Sweetie, people don't see this.' And in fact, if you looked around at that time, we were an anomaly — you would not go into a mall or into a grocery store or any dense public setting and see people with obvious disabilities. Now you will. But you didn't back then."

As people with disabilities have become more visible, that doesn't mean society always accepts them with grace. Strangers have stared at me my entire life. As a little kid, this bothered me so much that my mother told me I should tell them, "Why don't you take a picture? It'll last longer." (So I did, although I discovered that a glare was just as effective.) Little kids still do their best impression of the girl from The Exorcist when they see me walk.

A note included in the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 acknowledged the continuing bias: "In enacting the ADA, Congress recognized that physical and mental disabilities in no way diminish a person's right to fully participate in all aspects of society but that people with physical or mental disabilities are frequently precluded from doing so because of prejudice, antiquated attitudes or the failure to remove societal and institutional barriers."

Colleen Starkloff knows that all too well.

"If you had asked Max and me 40 years ago, when we got into this field, what was the single most significant issue facing people with disabilities, we'd have told you negative attitudes toward disability," she says. "And if you ask us today, what is the single most significant issue facing people with disabilities? We're going to tell you it's negative attitudes toward people with disabilities. It hasn't changed."

Joan Lipkin cofounded the DisAbility Project, a local theater group that increases disability awareness through performing original plays. Its members have a range of disabilities, and so the accessibility of every aspect of a performance space is an important consideration.

Lipkin recalls visiting a school where the troupe was to do a show and finding that the bathrooms weren't accessible.

"The person at the school, the very well-intentioned teacher who was also involved with diversity issues, she so wanted us to come in," Lipkin recalls. "So she said, 'Can't people go before they leave the house?' and I said, 'Oh sure they can, but you know how nature is, one never knows about things.' She said, 'Well, can't they just go, you know, into a corner and, like, use a bottle or something?' We've had many of those kinds of conversations."


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