had a strong bond with my uncle Leopold — my mother’s brother. He
lived with us during my childhood and teenage years in The Bronx.
Leopold was bright, witty, fun, and energetic. When he was
at home, the music was playing and there was always something interesting
going on. Together, we’d sing, dance, cook, sew, paint, and tell
stories. His energy was vibrant, electric, and contagious.
My girlfriends loved to come to my house
and just hang out because he was there. A couple of them had a “secret”
crush on him even though he was openly gay.
They didn’t care. My uncle Leopold was just a handsome, charismatic
So what does this have to do with discrimination? So far
not much. But I’m just getting started.
In the late 80s, my uncle was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS.
Not much was known about AIDS back then. Each downward milestone
came quickly and unexpectedly. It was as if we were being pummeled
with blows, one after another. There was no time to adjust, no time
to catch our breath, no time to digest what was happening.
First, we were told of the diagnosis, then we’d learn of
one opportunistic infection after another, each one taking a little
bit of him away. In a matter of months, my uncle went from being
a fit, athletic, strong young man who frequently bicycled around
Manhattan, to one who needed a cane to walk, and then a walker,
and then a wheelchair.
As the illness progressed, so did the medical equipment,
the stockpile of pharmaceuticals, and the other paraphernalia in
his tiny Manhattan apartment. Each time I visited, there was more
— countless pill bottles, dietary supplements, bathroom assists,
a walker, cane, mattress pads, bedpans, and yes, the wheelchair.
Leopold was still living in his Westside apartment when,
shortly after the arrival of the wheelchair, I visited for a week.
Living in Los Angeles with my then-husband and children made it
difficult for me to see him as often as I wanted, but when I did,
I stayed a while.
The morning after I flew in, the weather was beautiful. In
good spirits that day, my uncle suggested we go out. He wanted to
do a little shopping for new bed linens and we were entertaining
the idea of having lunch at his favorite deli on Broadway and 80th.
This was going to be a good day. Mom and I got him into his wheelchair
and we left his 16th floor apartment, got into the elevator, exited,
and wheeled him through the sunlit lobby.
It felt good being in New York, being outdoors away from
the cramped apartment filled with medical paraphernalia, a constant
reminder of what was to come. On this day, we were going to get
away from it all and just enjoy the city.
Then, as we approached the corner of 59th Street and 10th
Ave, just before crossing the street, I was struck with a sudden
disturbing revelation. There was no ramp at the curb corner. Could
we get him across the street without bumping and jostling him? The
jarring would have caused him considerable pain. I looked at all
four corners. There were no ramps at any of them. This was just
the first of many corners we were going to encounter – the prospect
of having a “fun day” began to fade.
In a flash, I thought about the subway, buses, and taxis
– were they wheelchair accessible? Would we be able to get him around
town without knowing these things in advance? I started thinking
of how infrequently I saw wheelchairs among the thousands of pedestrians
in Manhattan and began to get a sinking feeling.
In that moment, I experienced a shift in my understanding
of the many layers of complicity involved in creating an unequal
society. I also began to see how invisibility plays heavily in creating
and maintaining a system of practices and policies that produce
It became all to clear how it is that an entire segment of
a population can be discriminated against, in plain view, in a society
that holds itself up as the beacon of freedom and equality, yet
no one except for those directly impacted utters a word or even
It didn’t turn out to be the fun day we were hoping for because
we couldn’t get past the corner. We had to return him to his apartment.
Sadly, he remained apartment-bound until he was admitted to the
hospital where he died four months later. His death, of course,
had nothing to do with curb ramps, but the quality of the last few
months of his life did. Being apartment-bound only added to his
sense of powerlessness, hopelessness, and despair. Ultimately, he
became clinically depressed; he would have committed suicide had
I not caught him and pulled him back in the window. I can’t imagine
how many wheelchair-bound people have similar stories.
2002, more than 10 years after my uncle passed away, New York City
agreed to install concrete ramps at the city’s 158,000 curb corners.
This was done in part to satisfy a settlement requirement that came
as the result of a lawsuit against the city brought by a group representing
thousands of New Yorkers in wheelchairs. Also, since that time,
steps were taken to provide wheelchair-accessible taxis and subway
stations throughout the city. The buses were made wheelchair accessible
earlier but without curb ramps; the freedom to travel for people
who used wheelchairs was still limited.
As a black woman living in a white world, I am all too familiar
with the larger society’s inability to “see” discrimination even
when it’s staring us in the face. As I’ve matured and because of
experiences like my uncle’s, I’ve come to understand that for many,
this blindness is very real and not intentional. Unfortunately,
intentions do little to lessen the impact discrimination has on
its victims. It’s unlikely the architect of the New York City sidewalks
and curbs intended to design a system that limited the freedom of
people who use wheelchairs. But their freedom was limited nevertheless.
For this reason, Congress established a department of government
to protect the civil rights of all individuals and prohibit discrimination
on the basis of race, color, sex, disability, religion, and national
origin. The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice was
created to enforce laws that protect civil rights and prohibit discrimination
regardless of the perpetrator’s intention.
During the Bush Administration, many civil rights attorneys
left the department. Whether it was because of their departures
or for other reasons, the Civil Rights Division did not act on many
issues brought to its attention during that administration. However,
this month, the Senate confirmed Thomas Perez as Assistant Attorney
General of the Civil Rights Division. Perez was nominated by Attorney
General Eric Holder in an effort to reshape the division.
In an interview in Los Angeles on October 29th, Tom Perez
told Patt Morrison of KPCC, “There are two ways to prove discrimination.
You can show that someone intentionally discriminated or alternatively
you can demonstrate that a person or a company had a practice or
policy in place that while facially neutral had a discriminatory
impact.” Perez, who began working for the department in 1989, plans
to restore and transform the division so that it can more effectively
protect the rights it was founded to protect.
The Civil Rights Division of the DOJ has been around since
1957 to enforce anti-discrimination laws in housing, employment,
voting, lending, and other areas to ensure we all have equal access
to the freedoms offered by this country. But, for the first time
in America’s history, we have a President and a First Lady who have
both experienced discrimination.
I don’t know if you have to experience discrimination first
hand in order to be able to see it, but I do know that I learned
a lot standing on that corner with my uncle in a wheelchair 20 years
ago. For that reason, I have hope that maybe the Civil Rights Division
under the Obama administration will do what it has often failed
to do in the past – provide a line of defense for this country’s
most vulnerable people.
Columnist Sharon Kyle is the Publisher of the LA
Progressive. With her husband Dick, she publishes several other
print and online newsletters on political and social justice issues.
In addition to her work with the LA Progressive, Sharon is studying
law at the People’s College of Law in Los Angeles. She is
also mother and step-mother to four children, Wade, Deva, Raheem
and Linnea and has three children-in-law, Dan, Kelli and Yoko.
to contact the LA Progressive and