Sunday, July 26, 2015

Celebrating Twenty-five Years of the Americans with Disabilities Act

On July 26, 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law, making it the most comprehensive piece of legislation written to protect the rights of individuals who have disabilities. Sadly, twenty-five years later, there are still many Americans who have no idea what the law is, or why it's significant.

I suppose I'm passionate about the ADA because it's affected the lives of so many people I hold dear, but I'd like to think that it would hold significance for me even if it weren't so important to the ones I love.

My mother was born in 1936 and at seventeen years of age she had her first clinically identifying episode with what would later be diagnosed as Multiple Sclerosis, a debilitating disease of the central nervous system. Despite the fact that she was very self-conscious of her mobility issues, Mom lived her entire adult life gracefully and with dignity, as a person with a disability.

When Mom became disabled, there were no laws to protect her civil rights. After a lengthy absence her freshman year of college, mom went on to graduate with her class and secured a job as an elementary educator. She taught at a school that incorporated ungraded classrooms as part of their educational program--an atmosphere where students were grouped, based on their ability and level of work, rather than chronological age. Mom left her teaching job when she was expecting me, and wasn't ready to return until five years later--after my sister's birth. The exascerbations and remissions of the MS ebbed and flowed, but sadly, when Mom was ready to return to her teaching job, she could no longer legibly write or sign her name and she was turned away because of her physical limitations. One of Mom's greatest disappointments in life was that she was never able to return to the job she loved.

Today, the Americans with Disabilities Act protects workers with disabilities and ensures that they are provided with reasonable accommodations so they can continue working. Had the ADA been signed into law twenty years sooner, Mom's life might have been very different.

I'll never forget my first act of grass roots advocacy. The ADA hadn't yet been drafted, and polite letters failed to "encourage" our local library to install a lift to provide access to our century-old library. I had no clue, at the time how empowering advocacy could be. When writing letters to the library fell on intentionally deaf ears, we called up our state representative and the local media, inviting them to our "assembly". I helped my friend dress up in her Sunday best, escorted her on foot as she drove her Amigo buggy across town and we stood outside the library, explaining to the local newspaper and television station that, while it was wonderful the library offered a free service to deliver books to library patrons with disabilities, it was impossible to know what was even available at the library without first being able to get inside. Within weeks, a letter from our thoroughly chastised library came to my friend's home, inviting her to discuss her ideas so that the library could better meet the needs of everyone in the community.

I remember once thinking that the ADA was like a magic key that could open the doors to the kingdom. I grew up in a small, rural community where not one business entity was accessible. The old idiom "being on the outside looking in" could have been written expressly for individuals with disabilities, because before the ADA, that's largely how life was, how it is still, in some parts of our country, but because of the ADA, those people on the outside looking in have the tools to bring about change in their communities. The ADA accessibility guidelines ensure that individuals with disabilities have equal access and if they don't, the ADA makes it possible for an individual with a disability to file a discrimination suit against non-compliant businesses, and often a positive outcome occurs.

In 1985, my son was born with a developmental disability. Thanks to safeguards put into place by the ADA when he was just five years old, he is gainfully employed by an employer who has made accommodations for his specific needs. Because of the ADA my son is able to be a self supporting contributor to our community.

I understand that the ADA doesn't have the same impact on individuals who aren't personally affected by disability, but it's a law that benefits us all. I can remember a day when many places of business had steps, when doorways to public restrooms were so narrow one could barely walk through, when public transportation wasn't available to everyone. Equal access ensures that every person can enter an establishment and fully participate; not just the guy who pushes a wheelchair, but the mother pushing a stroller or a courier pushing a hand truck, as well.

While I can remember a life before the ADA was in place, I can't imagine life without it for the people I care about. I am grateful to every individual involved in drafting and enacting this life-changing piece of legislation, and had the express pleasure of once spending a day with someone who was instrumental in its birth.

Our nation might be celebrating the silver anniversary of the ADA today, but those with disabilities celebrate the ADA every, single day.

To learn more about the history of the ADA, check out the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund's historical summary of the birth of the ADA, years before its 1990 consummation-The History of the ADA, A Movement Perspective by Arlene Mayerson. Arlene's detailed, behind-the-scenes account of the steps that led to the legislation we now know as the Americans with Disabilities Act is intriguing and eye-opening. As a society, we take so many things for granted and I don't think many of us consider the exhaustive steps that are sometimes necessary to bring about change.