ADA at 25: Much to Praise, More to Do
By Kathi Wolfe
Im catching my breath. Like many
other disabled people and our allies nationwide from San Diego to Houston to
Peoria, Ill., to New York City, Im 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 ADAs 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
worlds 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. Its 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
There arent many days that Ill
always remember. But Ill never forget where I was when the ADA was
signed. I recall startling my co-workers in Cleveland. Mostly able-bodied but
progressive, they didnt know what having the ADA signed into law would
mean for us who have disabilities and our allies. I didnt 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.
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 isnt a job-creation bill, nor is it connected to
affirmative action. Yet, this landmark civil rights law prohibits
discrimination against our countrysnearly 50 million citizens with
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 wasnt wheelchair-accessible. Members of Congress found it
hard to ignore the truckloads of diaries that came into their offices.
I suspect that its 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
My friend Penny, whos blind, was in
college in the 1960s. I dont care how hard you work or how well you
do in this course, a chemistry professor told her in 1964, Im
going to flunk you. Im not going to have a blind student in my
In the late 1980s, the manager of a New
York City deli told me that Id 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 Id 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 shouldnt come here alone. You might hurt
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.
ADA is now a quarter-century old, theres 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 wasnt accepted, Heumann said, because I
was unable to walk up steps, even though my mother hadnt 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
During the festivities at the Washington,
D.C., center, I marveled at how far weve 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.
Theres the rub. Though the ADA is
now a quarter-century old, theres 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 arent 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 hospitals new orthopedic ward. A 2013 Annals of Internal
Medicine study found that 20 percent of doctors offices were
inaccessible. Though the ADA wasnt 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.
Its easy to become disillusioned
with the ADA. Battling discrimination and exclusion isnt for the faint of
heart. As we move forward, theres 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 cant legislate attitudes,
we know that with the ADA, we have legal redress against exclusion.
As a lesbian, I know what its like
not to have legal civil rights protection. Theres 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 theyre also a chance to rededicate
ourselves to the future -- to address the injustices that still linger, to
remove the barriers that remain.
Lets move onward with renewed hope
and determination to fight for our civil rights -- as the ADA begins its second
Kathi Wolfe is a writer and poet. Her most recent
poetry collection, The Uppity Blind Girl Poems, was published by