Within the halls of United Spinal, James Weisman is almost as famous for his storytelling ability as he is in the disability rights community for being one of America’s leading advocates for people with disabilities.
With the consummate accent of a lifelong New Yorker and a disarming, quick sense of humor, one coworker described Weisman’s ability to tell stories from his 35-year career as “just like an episode of Seinfeld.”
Comparing one of the leading architects of the ADA and one of the most tenured and respected voices on disability policy to a TV sitcom might seem trivial, but in reality Weisman’s knack for storytelling is a huge part of his continuing success in redefining the landscape of disability rights in favor of the millions of Americans with disabilities.
“The humorous stories are helpful to me because I’d go crazy if I didn’t have something to laugh about while doing this,” says Weisman. “Because it’s like pushing a rock up a hill. The nature of this fight has always been two steps forward, one step back. If you’re not prepared to take the one step back and look ahead to the next two steps forward, you’re going to be an unhappy person.”
As all good stories do, the story of how Weisman got involved with the disability community started with a girl. A teenage crush led Weisman to work at a New York summer camp for kids with disabilities. Working there, Weisman befriended a fellow counselor, Paul Hearne, who had osteogenesis imperfecta. But more importantly to Weisman, he also had a driver’s license. Weisman’s friendship with Hearne led to more friendships with people with disabilities and opened his eyes to the discriminatory treatment they often faced.
The counseling duo reunited after both attended college and law school. In 1977 they got funding to open an accessible legal services office in lower Manhattan by pointing out that 19 of the 21 existing offices were inaccessible, and thus in violation of regulations under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The public’s response surprised them and changed the course of their practice.
“As soon as we opened the doors, people with disabilities came in,” he says. “They had traditional legal needs, but they also were complaining about all the institutions that were discriminating against them — housing, employment, transportation, education — all that kind of stuff. At that point we realized there was a disability rights movement for real and that we were going to be a part of it.”
After two years of providing legal services focused mainly on transportation-related discrimination and a quick, unsatisfying stint in the governor’s office, James Weisman joined Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association in 1979. Over the next seven years, Weisman helped craft EPVA’s lawsuits against the New York MTA and the Philadelphia transit authority.
Weisman quickly discovered that his sense of humor and storytelling ability gave him a leg up when trying to debunk the other side’s claims. “I know that I have a good sense of humor and that I fool around with people a little bit and that people will listen to me a little bit more than they would if I came on like a house on fire,” he says.
Peers and coworkers attribute much of Weisman’s success to his ability to reframe disability rights issues in easy-to-understand stories that allow people from outside the disability community to starkly see the injustice.
Of all his professional accomplishments, Weisman treasures his role in framing the Americans with Disabilities Act and partaking in the signing ceremony (see sidebar). “When I was invited to the White House to witness the ADA’s signing in 1990, I realized that generations of people with disabilities who had advocated for their rights were not able to witness this momentous occasion.” he says.
That momentous occasion likely would not have come to pass if not for Weisman’s relentless advocacy. The settlements he helped achieve in New York and Philadelphia served as the model for the ADA’s transportation regulations, opening transportation options for millions of Americans with disabilities. Weisman was intimately involved in the ADA’s negotiations and drafting and calls the signing ceremony “the best thing I’ve ever been involved in.”
As CEO and the general counsel for United Spinal, Weisman has continued to fight for equal rights for people with disabilities. While his New York style might seem to clash with the more formalized world of D.C. politics, Weisman’s erudition and experience have made him an indispensable go-to source for policymakers.
“He has been remarkably successful,” says United’s Chairman of the Board, David Cooper, “He’s built an incredible network of individuals on a wide range of issues that have allowed him to have his fingers in a great number of disability rights issues since the dawn of the disability rights era.”
Looking back on his career and the disability rights movement, Weisman admitted to being surprised that we are still fighting many of the same fights he helped pick over 35 years ago.
“I thought exposure would be the answer,” he says. “I actually thought that mainstreaming disabled kids into the public school system would change everything because the stigma of disability would go away, people would socialize, and people with disabilities would be class clowns, class presidents and homecoming queens. I just thought it would be over by now and there would be much more assimilation than there is.”
The different reality only drives Weisman harder. “It’s extremely frustrating,” he says. “The perception of people with disabilities is still that they’re separate and apart and different even though everybody has a loved one or a friend or relative with a disability. They only think about their friend or relative and they don’t think of it as a population. In a way that’s good, because it means there is a lot of assimilation, but it also means there a lot of isolation.”
Alexandra Bennewith, the VP of Government Relations for United Spinal’s, says Weisman’s ability to always keep the long view in mind while working different angles gives him the strength to continue fighting to end that isolation.
“He knows at the end of the day that the issues that he believes in are what’s right and it isn’t an issue of money or power, but civil rights issues for people with disabilities that those rights are worth fighting for.