Taking the ADA Out to the Ballgame

The 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act is July 26, and longtime disability advocate Greg Smith wants to take it out to the ballgame.

On June 3, Smith launched the ADA Fan Cam initiative. The idea is to persuade broadcasting executives at every Major League Baseball game on July 26 to show shots of fans with disabilities during the game. Smith also wants announcers to talk about the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"I have always said publicly that I have never seen a fan cut away during a baseball game in my life," Smith said, referring to the shots of fans television broadcasts will often show during games. "And I have watched a lot of baseball in my 51 years. I have been focused on promoting my initiatives to celebrate ADA Day, and thanks to the resurgence of my Chicago Cubs I happened to be watching the broadcast when the fan cam segment aired. And the idea suddenly overwhelmed me."

I've been attending Philadelphia Phillies games for the last couple seasons on a Sunday package of tickets, and I have noticed that I rarely see people in wheelchairs or with disabilities that are obvious just by looking at the person on Phanavision. (I actually was on once last season.) But I never really thought about the TV broadcast. I asked Smith, author of On A Roll: Reflections from America's Wheelchair Dude with the Winning Attitude and host of "Timeout with the Strength Coach" podcast, why the ADA Fan Cam initiative was important.

"I think people with disabilities across the country will feel a sense of pride when they see people who look like them doing what everyone else is doing - enjoying their day at the old ballpark," Smith said. "It will be a visual sight to see!"

The energetic host of his own podcast and former nationally syndicated radio show doesn't think camera operators intentionally avoid showing people with disabilities. He just thinks it's a natural inclination to show what society considers more appealing individuals. In fact, he found himself falling victim to the same unconscious prejudices in starting the Facebook page for the project.

"I've selected dozens of pictures of people with disabilities at ballgames to promote the initiative," he said. "I found myself using a photo of Scott Chesney's family as the main image. Scott is a good-looking paraplegic who doesn't even appear to be disabled. Why did I choose that picture over many other pictures featuring people whose disabilities are much more apparent? Maybe I wanted an eye-candy image because I felt it would be more 'clickable.' But I have started to rethink that and I'm using more images of people with severe disabilities to promote the concept. I think there are certain subconscious tendencies that we need to bring into our consciousness and deal with to ensure we are doing the right thing. Cameraman are not taught, 'never show people with disabilities.' I think it's just subconscious human nature."

Pointing to an article in Forbes magazine, Smith wrote on his own blog that ADA Fan Cam could offer exposure about the ADA and issues facing the disability community to millions people who watch baseball nightly.

"I think the 2.7 million people who see the ADA Fan Cam are just a part of the overall exposure this initiative can deliver," he said. "The story of it and people's reaction to it can be written about and covered from the perspectives of local baseball fans with disabilities, local leaders in the disability community, and national disability rights leaders. Baseball is America's favorite pastime. This is the Americans with Disabilities Act."

Initial efforts to have an official ADA Day recognition in MLB parks, including throwing out the first pitch and a singer with a disabilities of the national anthem, didn't work out. Schedules were already set in advance. However, the ADA Fan Cam initiative might be a more powerful concept anyway. It's a very specific, easy thing baseball can do to raise awareness about issues faced by people with disabilities.

"Impacting the television broadcasts is [very] valuable," Smith said. "It's also free and painless to the broadcasters. All we're asking them to do is point the camera at a few different people periodically during the game and bring disability into the conversation of the announcers. I honestly don't see how this initiative can fail."

According to Smith, within three hours of starting the Facebook page, he had dozens of pictures of people with disabilities enjoying Major League Baseball parks. In one day, the page had over 100 "likes." He needs more support from people on social media and baseball fans with disabilities to send in their pictures.

Then he just hopes MLB broadcasts will play ball.