"Thank you, thank you so much. This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, a limitation, a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena. You are," she said as she triumphantly held up the coveted Tony.
As a woman with a disability, I felt such pride as she dedicated her award to young people with disabilities, making them feel seen and heard in an arena like the theater world, which had traditionally excluded them. Indeed, it was a victory for Stroker and for so many others who fight to overcome obstacles.
But the next day, I read about another obstacle that Stroker faced during the ceremony. It was a literal obstacle: The stage wasn't accessible. There was no ramp for her to get from her seat in the audience to the stage at New York's famed Radio City Music Hall. So the 31-year-old actress had to wait backstage
in case she won instead of sitting in the audience surrounded by her peers.
"I would ask theater owners and producers to really look into how they can begin to make the backstage accessible so that performers with disabilities can get around," she told reporters
after her win.
My heart sank because this scene illustrates the everyday ableism people with disabilities face, and it's not an uncommon one. The issue of accessibility is something we're all too familiar with, from theaters without ramps to restaurants with steps to buildings without elevators.
The truth is, the world is not made for people with disabilities, and there's no denying the twinge of irony that came with Stroker's win. Here she was, breaking down barriers and shattering disability stereotypes, yet confronted with a barrier to accept the award. In addition, by separating her from her peers and fellow nominees, this lack of a ramp was yet another example of a person with a disability being physically marginalized or separated from a group or community because of being differently abled than everyone else.
It's a stark reminder when it comes to disability and accessibility -- namely, that society still needs to do better. For all the talk about inclusion and representation, the disability community continues to remain merely an afterthought, where places are made accessible only after people with disabilities bring it to others' attention that they can't get into a building or onto a stage. It's telling the disability community that they need to conform to the able-bodied world instead of the other way around.
I've lived much of my 37 years acutely aware of society's lack of foresight. My elementary school didn't have a ramp until my family and I advocated for one. In high school, just like Stroker, I had to wait backstage to join the rest of my choir because there wasn't a ramp to get directly onto the stage. And there have been countless times in my everyday life where I'm forced to ask a stranger for assistance because something is just out of my reach -- an elevator button, a book on a high shelf or even inserting my debit card while shopping because I can't reach the machine.
If you're not disabled, those little things aren't something you'd typically think about, but those are the barriers I've faced every day. Something simple like going to the doctor or meeting friends for lunch can easily turn into an obstacle course of figuring out how I'm going to navigate the world. Getting from point A to point B isn't always a straight shot when you're in a wheelchair, and it can be incredibly frustrating.
Thankfully, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) has made the world -- or at least public buildings -- more accessible. The landmark legislation
, which became law in 1990, aims to remove barriers and combat discrimination against people with disabilities. According to the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division
, "The ADA is one of America's most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life -- to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in State and local government programs and services."
Yet, also in New York, disability rights groups have filed a major lawsuit
against the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which oversees the subway, arguing the agency's completion of multiple station renovations without adding accessibility features violates the ADA. So even if Ali Stroker had had a ramp at Radio City, she might still have found herself in a subway station with no elevators or ramps.
People with disabilities are up against so many obstacles to keep up and to thrive. Accessibility shouldn't be one of those obstacles. It's time that society truly opened its doors to the disability community in 2019. We've waited long enough.