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ADA at 25: Much to Praise, More to Do

By Kathi Wolfe

I’m catching my breath. Like many other disabled people and our allies nationwide from San Diego to Houston to Peoria, Ill., to New York City, I’m coming up for air. But this breathlessness is an exhilarating type of exhaustion.

Throughout July -- in Disability Pride parades, concerts, art exhibits, poetry readings, panel discussions and opinion pieces in the media -- we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. From millennials born after the ADA to members of “The Greatest Generation,” we reflected on the ADA’s impact on our lives and society since it was signed into law by President George Herbert Walker Bush on July 26, 1990.

“This historic act is the world’s first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities,” Bush said at the signing of the ADA, an extension of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “It’s been the work of a true coalition ... of people who have shared both a dream and a passionate determination to make that dream come true.

“Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down,” Bush continued as he lifted his pen at the signing.

There aren’t many days that I’ll always remember. But I’ll never forget where I was when the ADA was signed. I recall startling my co-workers in Cleveland. Mostly able-bodied but progressive, they didn’t know what having the ADA signed into law would mean for us who have disabilities and our allies. I didn’t blame them when they wondered why I cheered and floated about the office when I heard that the ADA was now the law of the land.
ADA 25 Americans with disabilities act 1990 - 2015
Many people under 30, or even 35, have little memory of the pre-ADA world. But many of us over 35 or 40 have vivid memories of pre-ADA life. The ADA isn’t a job-creation bill, nor is it connected to affirmative action. Yet, this landmark civil rights law prohibits discrimination against our country’snearly 50 million citizens with disabilities.

The ADA, adopted with bipartisan support (from former Republican Senator Bob Dole to former Democratic Senator Tom Harkin to Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.), offers legal redress if someone with a disability encounters discrimination in American life -- from employment to education to public accommodations to communications.

During the long, arduous effort to gain support for the ADA, people with disabilities nationwide kept “discrimination diaries.” These diaries documented the many instances of discrimination that so many of us with disabilities encounter daily -- from being kicked out of a cinema for being a “fire hazard” to being denied a job interview due to having a disability to being unable to get on a bus because it wasn’t wheelchair-accessible. Members of Congress found it hard to ignore the truckloads of diaries that came into their offices.

I suspect that it’s hard for many in the “ADA generation” to conceive of what it was like to live with a disability before the act. Here are a few stories from the pre-ADA era:

My late mother, who had type 1 diabetes, worked as a lab technician in the late 1940s. She never dared to tell her employer about her disability for fear of being fired because of being diabetic.

My friend Penny, who’s blind, was in college in the 1960s. “I don’t care how hard you work or how well you do in this course,” a chemistry professor told her in 1964, “I’m going to flunk you. I’m not going to have a blind student in my class!”The ADA signing ceremony, July 26,1990, included (left to right)

In the late 1980s, the manager of a New York City deli told me that I’d have to leave because my vision impairment was “depressing the other customers.” (He let me stay after I threatened to tell the media about his prejudice.)

Before that incident, when I lived in Cambridge, Mass., just after I’d finished college, I went to the Boston Public Library. Seeing that I was visually impaired, one of the librarians said to me: “People like you shouldn’t come here alone. You might hurt yourself.”

In April, Judith E. Heumann, the first U. S. Department of State special advisor for international disability rights, spoke at a press briefing about life before the ADA. Heumann, regarded by many as the Rosa Parks of the disability rights movement, recalled her upbringing. “For me, having had polio in 1949 growing up in Brooklyn, New York, there were no laws that protected the rights of disabled individuals.”

Though the ADA is now a quarter-century old, there’s still far too much inaccessibility and disability-based discrimination. Enforcement of the ADA has been a problem.

When her mother tried to enroll her in school when she was 5, she wasn’t accepted, Heumann said, “because I was unable to walk up steps, even though my mother hadn’t asked for any types of assistance for me to go to school.”

Today, thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, few of us with disabilities, especially the post-ADA youth, would expect or tolerate such indignities. Those of the ADA generation have grown up knowing that they have civil rights. They expect to receive accommodations in their schools and colleges, at hotels, restaurants, and other public places and in the workplace.

On July 26, during the ADA 25 celebration at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, I met Ruth A. Welland, an energetic, engaged college student who is blind. “After I graduate,” she told me, “I hope to establish a students with disabilities organization that would advocate for students having trouble with rehabilitation services.”

During the festivities at the Washington, D.C., center, I marveled at how far we’ve come since the ADA was signed. Recently, a breakfast place not only welcomed me as a diner but offered me a braille menu. There was a sign language interpreter at a poetry reading that I participated in. In the D.C. area where I live, the subway stations are wheelchair accessible -- when their elevators work.

There’s the rub. Though the ADA is now a quarter-century old, there’s still far too much inaccessibility and disabilitybased discrimination. Enforcement of the ADA has been a problem. Elevators in subway stations and wheelchair lifts on paratransit vans and public buses too often aren’t properly maintained. Only 18 of the nearly 400 train stations run by Amtrak, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, are accessible to people using wheelchairs, crutches, walkers or canes.

In 2009, I was hospitalized after being hit by a car. My leg was broken. With my walker, I was unable to access the bathroom in the hospital’s new orthopedic ward. A 2013 Annals of Internal Medicine study found that 20 percent of doctors’ offices were inaccessible. Though the ADA wasn’t designed to create jobs, many of us hoped that it might improve the employment picture for disabled people. Yet, in 2014, less than 20 percent of people with disabilities were employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It’s easy to become disillusioned with the ADA. Battling discrimination and exclusion isn’t for the faint of heart. As we move forward, there’s much work to be done before the “walls of exclusion come tumbling down.”

Yet, having the ADA -- a law that protects our civil rights -- is powerful. Though the process may try our patience, discrimination is often hard to prove, and you can’t legislate attitudes, we know that with the ADA, we have legal redress against exclusion.

As a lesbian, I know what it’s like not to have legal civil rights protection. There’s no federal law that protects lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people from discrimination in employment, public accommodations or other areas of American life.

“Now, days like today are a celebration of our history,” President Barack Obama said at a White House reception marking ADA 25. “But they’re also a chance to rededicate ourselves to the future -- to address the injustices that still linger, to remove the barriers that remain.”

Let’s move onward with renewed hope and determination to fight for our civil rights -- as the ADA begins its second quarter century.

Kathi Wolfe is a writer and poet. Her most recent poetry collection, “The Uppity Blind Girl Poems,” was published by BrickHouse Books.

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