Wisdom from a Chair: Q&A with Mitchell Batavia

On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, strengthening protections and promoting opportunities and access for people with disabilities.

Around the law’s 25th anniversary, Mitchell Batavia, chair of the Department of Physical Therapy, made an unexpected discovery: the unfinished memoirs of his late brother, Andrew (Drew) Batavia. For much of his life, Drew — a lawyer, disabilities rights activist, and health care policy analyst — was paralyzed from the shoulders down and confined to a wheelchair following a spinal cord injury. His disability didn’t stop him: while a White House Fellow, he wrote regulations for the Americans with Disabilities Act, often using a stick to painstakingly type by mouth.

Mitchell Batavia helped finish his brother’s memoir, and this spring, published Wisdom from a Chair. On the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we spoke with him about his brother’s legacy.

How did your brother and his work inspire you professionally?
His disaster, at age 16, certainly had something to do with it. While growing up as a teenager, I had an early education on the implications of spinal cord injuries and life in a wheelchair, which likely directed my choice of professions. Later in my career, when I was less than dazzled with the outcomes of seating interventions for persons with disabilities, I wrote two editions of a textbook on wheelchair prescription.

As Drew and I moved toward careers in higher education, he at Florida International University, and me at NYU, we began collaborating on projects. We complemented (and complimented) each other seamlessly; he knew health policy, and I, health care. We became a good team. Ironically, Drew’s memoir will be our final collaboration.

You’ve written academic articles and textbooks before, but not a memoir. What was it like to help finish your brother’s memoir?
It was a cathartic and eviscerating experience– I recommend everyone write one. I discovered a ton about my brother that I, embarrassingly, had little knowledge of, along with any ambivalent feelings I may have harbored in my relationship with him.  From a technical standpoint, the experience was liberating–at last I could pepper my writing with colorful adjectives and suspenseful, cumulative sentences that didn’t end in a p value.

Mitchell (left) and Drew (right) Batavia

How do you think your brother would feel about the current state of disability rights, 26 years after the ADA was signed?
This is a great question–Drew had an opinion on just about everything.  I think he would be pleased with the greater accessibility to public spaces and transportation achieved across the United States over the past 26 years, but impatient over the slow progress made in healthcare access and employment opportunities for people with disabilities. How do I know this? You’ll have to read the memoir to find out.