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In a photo taken before the coronavirus pandemic necessitated the wearing of facial coverings, Prof. Karl Booksh (right) teaches a chemistry course at the University of Delaware. Booksh joined UD's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in 1998. Booksh broke his neck playing flag football as a freshman in college. The injury would put Booksh in a wheelchair, but it didn’t stop him from pursuing the career he always wanted — to be an educator.

The Americans with Disabilities Act at 30

Photos by Evan Krape

UD professor cites progress, challenges in pursuit of the ‘freedom to excel’

One in four Americans (26%) has a disability of some kind — it may be serious difficulty with mobility, cognition, hearing, vision, independent living.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, designed to protect people with disabilities from discrimination, was passed into law 30 years ago, on July 26, 1990.

A few years before the ADA came into being, Karl Booksh broke his neck playing flag football as a freshman in college. The injury would put Booksh in a wheelchair, but it didn’t stop him from pursuing the career he always wanted — to be an educator. Originally, he thought he wanted to be a high school teacher, but then he fell in love with research and revised his plans.

He went on to earn a bachelor of science in chemistry with honors from the University of Alaska, a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Washington, and a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship prior to joining the faculty of the University of Delaware’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in 1998. Since then, he’s been leading a thriving research program at UD in the development of chemical sensors for environmental, biomedical and industrial monitoring. He’s published more than 100 scientific papers and holds five patents.

Booksh also has been an outspoken advocate for people with disabilities, particularly in academia. He’s on the board of OXIDE, the Open Chemistry Collaborative In Diversity Equity, established by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and Department of Energy. He is a past chair of the American Chemical Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board and the Committee on Chemists with Disabilities. Currently, he is president-elect of the Society for Applied Spectroscopy, where he is working to establish its first diversity and inclusion committee. He also has pioneered an NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at UD to encourage more students with disabilities to continue on for their doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

In recognition of the ADA’s 30th anniversary this year, UDaily asked Booksh about the headway he has seen and the work yet to be done, from his perspective.

Q: Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, what progress have you seen in stamping out discrimination against people with disabilities?

Booksh: I broke my neck a couple of years before the ADA, so I sort of grew up as it was forming. I’ve honestly seen more progress on the West Coast than on the East Coast because of newer buildings and infrastructure on the West Coast, including the integration of Braille signage. On the East Coast, there are so many historic buildings with steps. It’s harder to incorporate elevators into these older buildings. A good friend who is blind said he feels there is more progress in cities through technology, with apps. But I still have a lot of challenges with buses and public transportation. And right now, I’m stuck at my parents’ place while the elevator in my house is being fixed. You just can’t get a ranch house that’s move-in ready — you have to retrofit it somehow. But that’s just the physical side of things.

Q: What about the social side? 

Booksh: The social side is much more interesting. We’re still the only underrepresented group that can’t control its own language, and I’m a proponent of free speech. What I mean is that we still hear these disability pejoratives — words like “gimp, retard, lame.” Can you imagine if that were still the case with other diverse communities, especially with the growth of movements like Black Lives Matter? But you don’t see or hear much about us in the media. Instead, people with disabilities seem to fall into one of three archetypes on TV: (1) we’re evil (disability is a metaphor for evil); (2) we’re the vessel for other people to show their compassion; or (3) we all have to be computer people because God knows we can’t do anything else. By contrast, in Ozark on Netflix, one of the strong characters was Ben, who had bipolar disorder. They did a good job presenting his life and problems in a way that was appropriate and sympathetic. And then they had to go kill him off.

Q: What are still some of the biggest challenges?

Booksh: One of the biggest challenges is getting people to look at the data. There has to be recognition and forethought. One in four people in the U.S. has a disability, and they are not all visible, physical disabilities. I find it very interesting that few people know the name Tony Timpa. He lived in Texas and happened to be from a wealthy family. He had schizophrenia and depression. He was off his meds, was at a store and got afraid. His mother had always told him to call the police for help. He did that, and he ended up being restrained by police officers and died in the same manner as George Floyd. Yet there was no media coverage beyond the Dallas area. What I believe we’re seeing is police officers not being trained to recognize things outside of their normal. The psychological disability, the deaf person who might not hear an order.

Q: Do you think fear is part of it, that some people don’t know how to interact with a person who has a psychological or physical disability?

Booksh: It’s true. Some people don’t know how to respond. Even other people in wheelchairs will talk about how people will not talk to you — they’ll talk to the person beside you. “What does he want?” As though you don’t have the ability to answer. You need to go into that interaction not thinking, “How do I survive this encounter, but rather, what does this person need?” 

Q: How is UD doing on this front? Do we offer programs or approaches that you have found to be particularly effective?

Booksh: I’ll give you my top example that cannot be highlighted enough. The University of Delaware Center for Disabilities Studies is not just succeeding but excelling. They are respected across the state and across the nation. They are helping people lead enriched lives — take getting access to needed health care, as just one major area. Wheelchair-accessible dental chairs and doctors’ examining tables are rare. And just getting a child, or any low-income person with a disability, who doesn’t have access to their own wheelchair to a dental or medical appointment can be a full-day process. They are also running innovative programs like the Spectrum Scholars. Society needs more programs like this that are not “thought police” focused on diversity and inclusion, but that lift people up to succeed.

Q: In an essay for the UD Research magazine several years ago, you said you rarely saw people like yourself at national conferences, when giving seminars at other universities or even in applicant pools for new faculty hires. Is that changing?

Booksh: Not really. One of the boards I’m involved in did a survey of university leaders after a conference recently on “how to increase diversity in your department.” One hundred percent of the respondents said we need to do gender equity. But only two-thirds said they would be willing to do disability equity. Some of my colleagues believe it’s because some people think it takes more money and effort.

Q: What are some of the most meaningful and impactful actions a person can take to support people with disabilities?

Booksh: My answer is, the same thing I would ask you to do with anybody. Determine what the person needs to succeed and then put them in this role. I took a leadership development course from the American Chemical Society several years ago and learned that in every field of endeavor, you have about a dozen skills that can lead to your success. But you only need to be really good at 1 or 2 of them. The problem is, we’re developing one-size-fits-all curricula and lesson plans in our educational systems because it’s easy. But we’re not approaching things humanistically. We need to give people the freedom to excel. It’s like I’ve learned as a parent, your goal is not to make excellent children, but excellent adults. The same applies to universities. How do you prepare someone to excel after they leave our bubble? All of our benchmarks are meaningless if the people we pass back to society are not prepared to contribute. We can’t put people with disabilities in boxes and forget about them.

Q: As an academic, what grade would you give the U.S. in securing full rights for people with disabilities? And what can all Americans do to improve that grade?

Booksh: I’d give us a B. And if I was grading on a curve, it’s an A+. Are you surprised? Give me a country where you’d rather be. If I had to parachute my child with a disability into a nation, there are more opportunities here. We were the first to pass anti-discrimination legislation for people with disabilities, and we’re still the best. There’s still a lot we could do. We can improve that grade if we just improve ourselves — I guess you would call it following the Golden Rule, about treating others as you would like to be treated. People with disabilities are not special. We’re in that bell curve of capabilities although only 33 percent of us are employed. Think what all that untapped talent could do for the U.S.

Editor’s note: The University of Delaware Office of Disability Support Services (DSS) provides accommodations and services to incoming and current UD students with disabilities, psychological or medical conditions, or temporary injuries that limit their access to the UD environment. DSS provides a variety of academic accommodations and services to ensure accessibility to University classes and programs, including testing accommodations, alternative print media, assistive technology and interpreter services for academic purposes. Learn more on the DSS homepage which can be found at https://sites.udel.edu/dss/.

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