Tom Olin — Chief Photographer of the ABILITY Movement

Circa 2007

It was a humid autumn night in New York. The volume began to lower on those finishing up the workweek, and rise on those welcoming a night on the town. One could hear the streets sing a melody all their own: horns honking in seemingly well-rehearsed rhythms; slivers of conversation chiming in from passing couples; and music wafting through the open doors of neighborhood clubs.

At no more than half-past five, lines had already formed outside popular restaurants, and Broadway, a mere jaunt down the street, was coming to life.

I passed all these enticing options without giving pause, for I was excited by what I had in store. I’m almost there, I thought to myself. But I felt a bit of doubt: A sense of direction isn’t my strongest suit. So I pulled out my cell phone and asked my speed dial to call Tom Olin.

He came on the line and reassured me: “You’re almost here, hon. Another block straight ahead. I’ll be…” and just as he said that my eyes traced his outline “…waiting on the corner.”

There he was: a tall, slender silhouette wearing faded blue jeans, a ‘Disability Pride’ T-shirt and his hair pulled back in a thin, ponytail. He waved, smiling. Though we had last seen each other and chatted only hours earlier at a United Nations Disability Rights Caucus, we greeted one another with a bear hug. It was our tradition.

Another half block down the street, we arrived at our destination, a door next to a cigar shop. I followed as we walked down a hallway, climbed a few flights of stairs and moseyed down another hallway. Finally, we approached a door marked: 4C.

Tom had been strategic in planning his accommodations for his assignment to cover the 2006 United Nations Caucus on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Since the convention would be two weeks, he calculated that it would be more economical to rent an apartment than reserve a hotel room. The fact that he actually found an apartment in New York is what confirms either his uncanny resourcefulness or his good luck.

Tom gestured that I should make myself at home on a chair, which he pulled in from the kitchen as he pried open the window to balance the humidity inside with the humidity outside. “Ah, yes. That’s better,” he said. Then he sat down at the “smart-techno-person” station he had established in the living room and asked, “So, what do we get to talk about?”

Sitting across from him, I became unexpectedly overwhelmed as it dawned on me: This is Tom Olin, the photographer extraordinaire who has worked for over 20 years documenting the Disability Rights Movement. His work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, textbooks, web pages, museums and art shows worldwide. Goodness gracious, where was I to start? My list of questions for him lengthened as quickly as a cash-register receipt during a shopping spree. I took a deep breath.

“Well,” I said, “how did you get to be the primary photographer to chronicle disability history as it’s been made?”

He gently chuckled, took a deep breath and let out a “hmmmm…” Then he shared with me story after story from his memories, which are the makings of a human history book. He told me how his dyslexia played a role in preventing him from going to college because he couldn’t get the necessary accommodations. At the time, not only was it not required of post-secondary institutions to provide accommodations, but many schools and their faculty never even gave it a thought.

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Tom mentioned how he retreated to Canada in the 1970s to resist being drafted. While he acknowledged that there are, indeed, times when force must be called upon to ignite action, he theorizes that, to this day, “love will find a way.” He made comparisons between the international conflict in the ’70s and the progression of the Disability Movement, noting the similarities of society’s perception of such actions, and how our obligation to educate the larger community of such realities is affected as a result.

He told of how policymakers and grassroots organizers in 1990 united in the Rotunda of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, to advocate for signing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); how the Supreme Court reacted to the first “Not Dead Yet” rally; how people chained themselves to the White House fence on more than one occasion to fight for equal rights; how advocates within one state successfully negotiated in state officials’ chambers for enactment of their rights, while advocates in other states blocked the doorways to state chambers because their rights were being denied. I sat there listening like a girl whose eyes were fixed on her favorite movie, waiting for more.

Tom’s hand stayed attached to the mouse that connected him to Photoshop and his pictures of the United Nations forum, but suddenly he paused and gazed out the window. “You know those were such important times,” he looked wistful, as if the memories were all coming back to him. “People sacrificed a lot. We had the moral right and the moral obligation to protest for change. We finally came together as a community to make these rights public. In most cases this was the first time the American press could see that there was actually vocal and effective opposition to what was going on in our country.” His eyes moved from the window and linked with mine. “We were being the most American of Americans at those moments.”

There was silence as I absorbed what he said, and then he went back to fiddling with the photos of global community leaders on his computer. In his years of taking pictures, his photographic equipment has evolved from a 35-millimeter camera and some extra roles of film to a digital single-reflex-lens camera, two computers, lots of cords and a collection of DVDs and jump drives.

“So, what still stands in our way?” I asked, referring to the Dis Movement.

His head popped up: “We stand in our way!” This was the most abrupt response I had heard from this man who is generally quite laid back. “We stand in the way of our own Community all the time! We talk about inclusion, but do we practice it? What about people with augmented speaking devices? What about those with psychiatric disabilities? What about young people, for heaven’s sake!” His voice accelerated in speed and volume. “You know, sometimes we are our own biggest enemy. Sometimes it’s easier to take on a situation by yourself rather than taking others with you. But sooner or later people will have to realize that when you do that, only one person learns the lesson.”

I wrote as fast as I could, my hand beginning to feel as though it would never detach from my pen.

“I mean, take young people for example,” his voice came back down to the tone and speed of the Tom I was used to hearing. “We need to transition from ‘Generation A’ to ‘Generation B,’ and we need to make that change quickly. I yell at my generation for not putting more young people into power right now so we can learn from one another. And I feel terrible about it, because I just don’t see young people being connected to the Movement and to each other. Our Community talks about inclusion all the time, but we need to realize that this also ‘includes’ age.”

I glanced down at my notes, hoping I’d later be able to decipher what looked like a bunch of scribbling.

“I used to say when the ADA was being passed that it was like the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet right now the courts are forgetting what the ADA is for, which means that we didn’t fight for it long enough or hard enough the first time. In fact, we may have to fight for it all over again, and to do that we’ll need to depend on our youth allies.”

I commented how his vision about educating, empowering and collaborating with ‘Generation B’ virtually duplicated what was on the wish list of a quickly growing sub-community of young leaders in the Movement. “So, Tom, what else besides this shared issue is on your wish list?” I asked.

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He rattled off: people with disabilities working within businesses and organizations where they can grow and become leaders, rather than remaining stagnant in one job; having more disability leaders active in the media industry; and empowering young leaders to take control.

“These are some of my current priorities, I guess,” he mumbled, with his eyes still transfixed on the computer screen. “It’s hard to have a wish list when you’re fighting a fight all the time. Usually, we have to just work with the challenges that are thrown in front of us. But in the meantime, we have to hope that our friends will fill in the gaps we leave along the way…as people and as a Movement.”

“Tom,” I asked, “how can you do all that you do, go everywhere you go, and not get burned out?” He looked at me, silent, as though I had said something in a language he didn’t understand.

“Burned out?” he questioned. “How can one get burned out? I have never been burned out. Sometimes one may get overwhelmed or sometimes one may need to take a break. But if you get ‘burned out,’ you need to take another look at your mission.” I raced to jot down what he had said. “We are fighting a war with humanity, hon, with human rights. And how can we get burned out when fighting the good fight? It’s all about equality.” “

So, is that what your photos represent,” I asked, “our fight for equality?”

“Everyone can evoke change,” he said, still doodling with photos on the screen. As he diversified the color contrast of a photo showing Nigerian representatives at the caucus conversing about their notes from the day, he continued: “I will always search for ways that people can see the empowerment within themselves. I have the opportunity to show the world that people with disabilities who fight for their rights are wise people; they can be learned from. I’m glad that I’m able to let people know that people with disabilities are powerful people. We don’t need to be pitied. We shall overcome.”

He looked at me. “You know that song, ‘We Shall Overcome,’ don’t you?”

“Uh-huh” is all that came out as I tried to soak everything in.

“Well, maybe that is how I will answer your question about what my photos represent,” he said, his voice tranquil. “Our struggle has been long, and it will be longer. But at some point it will bear fruit.” He chuckled ever so lightly. “Not in my lifetime, that’s for sure. There’s a long way to go. But even when I’m no longer around, my photos—the trials and the accomplishments and the lessons and the struggles and the victories that they represent—will be.”

Then, as though our conversation had just begun, he said: “So, what are your plans for dinner?”

I looked out the window. It was dark outside and a cool breeze drifted in. When had the sun set? When had the humidity disappeared? When had my stomach started to growl?

“Dinner?” I said with a smile. “No plans.” I closed my notebook. “What did you have in mind?”

by Betsy Valnes

Betsy Valnes is an active member of the disability movement both in the US and abroad. She currently serves as the executive director for the National Youth Leadership Network, and also works as a mentor with the National Council on Disability. Valnes has traumatic brain injury and anomia. Her disability-related skills include human rights training, inclusive practices, advocacy techniques and transitioning young people with disabilities from school to careers. Valnes’ business, New Voice-New Vision, offers public speaking, facilitation of conferences, work groups and planning councils.

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