Jan Campbell - Advocate
She has a degree in elementary education from Portland State University (1970) and successfully completed her student teaching. The University was proud of her. There was just one problem: the school district wouldn’t hire her because her disability might “badly influence” the children. Substitute teaching at several district schools – which might have calmed down those fears – was difficult because the schools were inaccessible. Meet Jan Campbell, and see why Portland is lucky she didn’t get that teaching job.
Left paralyzed at the age of two by a virus that attacked her spine, Jan Campbell has used a wheelchair nearly all her life. She attended special schools or classes for children with disabilities. Her mother, a physician, offered some advice that has stayed with Campbell for her entire life and shaped how she dealt with adversity. “The world isn’t ready for you, so we’ll make you ready for the world.”
Take, for example, earning a degree in elementary education that didn’t result in becoming employed. Campbell recalls that everyone just assumed she would teach 5th or 6th graders because she was a good student and effective in her student teaching practicum. For many of us, the rejection would be devastating, but Mom’s advice worked once again and Campbell started job hunting.
Portland, in 1970, wasn’t very accessible for someone who got around in a wheelchair. Lifts on busses? Not yet invented. Curb cuts? Come back in a decade or so. Campbell got around manually wheeling herself, using the streets when necessary and depending on friends to drive her longer distances. Many businesses were not particularly accessible, and even when they were, their bathrooms were not yet ready for someone in a wheelchair. The ADA was still twenty years in the future. Still, Portland was much more progressive than many cities.
Campbell contacted the city and found it receptive to hiring her to bring some teeth into compliance with the brand new 1973 Rehabilitation Act’s section 504 that prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities. As the city’s new Disability Rights Coordinator, Campbell began a 24-year-long career with the city that allowed her to become a forceful and effective advocate for citizens with disabilities.
As Campbell describes her work during that early, pre-ADA period, she emphasizes how different it was to have the law backing her up, rather than simply being an advocate. “The city was not the hard part,” she says, “because it knew it had to comply with the law.” Still, Section 504 was an anti-discrimination approach to changing society and, as the ADA’s civil rights approach would later demonstrate, not the more effective strategy.
“The tough part of my job,” Campbell explained, “was out in the community. The barriers were attitudes about disability, and those are harder to change.” For example, Oregon had progressive building codes that promoted accessibility, but builders didn’t see the need for it. “They said they didn’t have people who were asking for accessible stores and buildings, so why go the extra expense and bother?” she says.
Campbell spent a lot of time talking on the phone, and routinely found that her first face-to-face meetings elicited a surprised, “Oh, I didn’t know that YOU used a wheelchair!” She feels that walking the walk increased her credibility and made her ideas more believable. One individual who was a critic and a non-believer in the need for accessibility for years made an abrupt and dramatic change when an accident left him disabled. The need for accessibility, he found, was much clearer.
Technology made life easier. Campbell got her first motorized wheelchair in 1978, which was both good and bad. Now the strategy of asking a friend for a ride was out the door – the motorized chair was far too heavy to put in the trunk – so Campbell motored around the community. The lack of curb cuts often forced her out into the street. By now, some busses had lifts – again, both good and bad news. Those first lifts were not as safe as today’s lifts, they were slow, and the drivers were not allowed to use them in busy rush hour traffic. Bus drivers made individual decisions regarding the safety of letting a passenger in a wheelchair out using the lift, which meant they might not stop at some locations.
Not surprisingly, Campbell became a member of the Tri-Met’s Committee on Accessible Transportation and worked hard to improve the bus system’s success at serving people with disabilities. She’s proud of the improvements made by Tri-Met over the years. “I can now go so many places independently,” she says. At the same time, Campbell is well aware that public transportation in the city is much more accessible than in the suburbs and more rural areas. Recent cuts by Tri-Met reflect difficult economic times and have reduced the service on routes further out from the city.
Still a decade before the ADA, Campbell went back to graduate school and got a van with a lift that she could use to drive to areas not on public transportation routes. She remembers being carried up stairs into a classroom for grad students as an adult because the academic building was not yet accessible.
With the passage of the ADA in 1990, Campbell hoped that lasting change was finally in the air. “We were very excited when the ADA passed. I really thought things would improve.”
Now, twenty years later, she reflects on what she’s seen. “You can make laws, but unless you change attitudes many things don’t change. People still make cruel remarks, and we (people with disabilities) are still excluded from simple social activities.” Campbell gives the example of attending a conference and going to a conference luncheon. The chair beside her often stays empty in the packed room.
Will change happen? “It has in some ways. Physical accessibility – getting into buildings and things like curb cuts – has improved a lot in twenty years. But for those with sensory impairments, the change is less. Look at how far we have to go in achieving effective communication. And for people with non-apparent disabilities, like mental illness, there is not much support in the community,” says Campbell. “No one wants to talk about disability, and when they finally do, a lot of stuff comes out.”
Campbell now has left her work with the city after two decades, but still has a typical work day that starts at 7 am and doesn’t finish until 10 pm. She’s become very involved with mental health and with women’s issues, working part time for Aging and Disability Services on their “Help” line, teaching a class on women with disabilities who suffer depression at Oregon Health Sciences University, and volunteering at Portland State University on a project focusing on women who have been abused. Oh, and she serves on the City’s Commission on Disabilities that she used to chair as a city employee.
“I worry,” she says, “about who will take the torch when we retire.” Campbell sees the future being more challenging for advocates. “We could see the changes we were advocating for, like when a building became accessible or when the bus system installed lifts. But in the future, the changes needed will be just as important but less visible to the advocate and to others.” She hopes that a new generation of advocates will continue the fight.