The Americans With Disabilities Act is Turning 25!
The Americans with Disabilities Act is turning 25, and it’s time to celebrate!
A quarter century of civil rights legislation has allowed people with disabilities all over the country the opportunity to go to school, build careers, start families, and travel the world. Young people in the disability community today, benefiting from the hard-fought victories of the generation before them, are armored with a sense of pride and self-confidence that says “Yeah, it’s cool to be disabled.”
When people think about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), what often comes to mind are things like reserved parking spaces and powered door openings, ramps and lifts, grab bars and widened bathroom stalls. We understand the ADA to be a set of requirements, rules and regulations that require such points of access. Yet, the ADA is so much more than mandates for such things as building access and parking spaces. It is comprehensive civil rights legislation for all people with disabilities to have the same equal rights and fundamental liberties granted to all people in society.
The signing of the ADA into law on July 26, 1990, was the culmination of a decades-long effort on behalf of thousands of people with disabilities and their allies and advocates. Getting disability rights legislation into public policy was not an easy task, mostly, because first policy makers had to be made aware of the discrimination that people with disabilities faced in their everyday lives. They had to have their eyes opened to the reality that the promises of prosperity and equality written in the constitution for all Americans, wasn’t being fulfilled for a whole class of people: those with disabilities.
Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.
— President George W. Bush at the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act
Just as African Americans had done thirty years before during the Civil Rights Movement, people with disabilities recognized the power in unifying as one with one cause: equality for all. They insisted that whether a person used a wheelchair, was deaf, had HIV, or autism, the law must apply to all. Denouncing their second class citizenship, people with disabilities slowly began to change long-held beliefs based on stereotypes that permitted the discrimination they faced in daily life. Numbering in the thousands, nation-wide, disabled people made journal entries in discrimination diaries that finally gave voice to the silent injustices that were shamefully occurring late into the 20th century.
Forced to confront the unequal and unjust treatment of millions of its own countrymen and women, politicians and the public itself, finally recognized that significant civil rights legislation was needed. People with disabilities were long over-due the protections of law which would ensure they have the same pursuits of life, liberty and happiness afforded to all Americans. Thus was the foundation of the ADA. To date, it is one of the most significant pieces of government policy ever written into law.
This year we are celebrating the ADA’s 25th Anniversary. It is at this significant milestone that we pause to reflect upon what its legacy has been. How has it helped to shape America? How has it altered its landscape, not just in physical ways, but also in thought, dialogue, emotion and attitudes? For example, while equal employment is a protected right, have attitudes evolved enough that employment is expected? Or, for a child with Autism, equal education is the law, but are their differences valued as assets and not hindrances, allowing them to become productive contributors to society?
The Americans with Disabilities Act is a Living Law that requires constant advocacy
The ADA is a living law that will continue to be tested through legal reinterpretation as our society changes and advances. People with disabilities must remain vigilant that the ADA remain intact, and address new areas of discrimination as they arise. In the 60’s, sidewalks lacking curb cuts were a significant barrier to access. Today, barriers exist in areas of technology in the new modern age of the internet. For as time changes, so do people, and so do the needs of the people. But as long as the spirit of the law never waivers, people with disabilities will continue to achieve the equal rights and liberties that our country’s Constitution promises us. For the law has always said, and will always say, “I am equal, I am worthy, I am here.” This is the ADA’s greatest and enduring legacy.
Unfortunately, all too often we get so caught up in our fight for civil rights and equal access, that we unintentionally marginalize ourselves from society at large. When, in fact, all we want is to be fully integrated! But demanding a seat at the table of integration means we first must know how to work with others to help set that table. We have earned the rights guaranteed by the ADA, now we must live up to our responsibilities that those rights afford.
That means developing a new paradigm for the 21st century, coming up with new ways to meet old challenges. We must look forward with revolutionary thinking and stop looking back with evolutionary thinking. Part of this revolution means having pride in ourselves and our disability, and not being shy about expressing it. It means describing ourselves with words like accomplished, proud, successful, independent, self-reliant, powerful, purposeful, accountable, and yes, cool!
In celebrating this huge historical milestone of our community, we must continue to remind ourselves, and everyone else, the truth that we already know: that people with disabilities are not less able, but rather, that our disabilities are just another beautiful, wonderful aspect of diversity in the human race. And these differences are to be appreciated and celebrated!
“And that’s the greatest example, that we, who are considered the weakest, the most helpless people in our society, are the strongest, and will not tolerate segregation, will not tolerate a society which sees us as less than whole people. But that we will together, with our friends, will reshape the image that this society has of us.”
— Ed Roberts, a pioneering founder of the Independent Living and Disability Rights movement