July Fourth was the 229th Independence Day for our nation. July 26 will be the 15th anniversary of Independence for America’s 50 million people with disabilities.
Fifteen years ago President George H.W. Bush signed the historic civil rights law known as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. At the signing ceremony, held on the South Lawn of the White House, Mr. Bush declared, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion come tumbling down.”
Hundreds of disabled people, their family and caregivers attended the signing. One reporter called it the largest ever assembly of disabled people. Mr. Bush said: “Every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through a once-closed door to a bright new era of equality, independence, and freedom.”
President Bush may not have intended the ADA to be the most historic event of his presidency, but many disability community veterans considered it so. It energized the disabled and their families to greater political advocacy. The disabled found hope employers’ smothering paternalistic attitudes would end.
The ADA has been described as “The world’s strongest civil rights protection for the disabled.” Since 1990, other countries have moved toward greater social inclusion for the disabled. Still, disabled university students come to America to study because an accessible education is the law.
A New York Times editorial on the ADA, “A Law for Every American,” stated, “The Act does more than enlarge the independence of disabled Americans. It enlarges civil rights and humanity for all Americans.” Such editorials brought even more hope to the disabled and their families.
The ADA was the realization of many in Congress from both political parties. It had bipartisan support of leaders like Republican Sens. Bob Dole of Kansas, and Charles Grassley of Iowa; and Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa, and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. Clearly, Congress was convinced the disabled and their families had historically been treated unfairly and moved boldly to address the problem.
The last 15 years have been historic for the disability community. There are more wheelchair ramps and accessible curbs. The disabled have found jobs previously denied them due to unfounded medical concerns. Low-cost employer and government accommodations have increased employment for the disabled. Unemployment of the disabled is still high, and more accommodations and training are needed.
These years have also been historic for what did not happen. Critics argued the ADA would bankrupt small business. Small businesses, many with newly hired disabled employees, have flourished. Society is not paralyzed by lawsuits as some critics predicted. Compliance has not been an economic burden for employers. In fact, many employers offer employment protections for the disabled that go beyond those of the ADA. Simply put, the ADA is good business.
The ADA is actually a simple law about cooperation and open discussion between employer and employees with disabilities. Workplace studies have consistently shown employment accommodations for the disabled cost less than $50. Who could argue that was an economic burden or hardship?
Disability advocacy has blossomed over the last 15 years. The disabled are maneuvering their way down the halls of Congress and the offices of welcoming representatives. Their message: The ADA works for everyone.
The last 15 years have seen a solid record of achievement for civil rights of the disabled. Many of the strongest advocates of the ADA have sadly passed on. Those leaders included Harold Russell, Evan Kemp Jr. and Justin Dart Jr. Their years of sacrifice and service were rewarded with the ADA. Their leadership and accomplishments will motivate another generation of disability leaders.
Recently, I wrote to former Sen. Bob Dole and thanked him for his leadership on the ADA. He wrote back and said, “I am proud of my role in passing the ADA legislation.” He is a modest hero to millions of disabled people.
I also wrote former President Bush to tell him how important signing the ADA was to my hearing-impaired daughter, Alex. He replied: “Signing the Americans with Disabilities Act was, for me, one of the highlights of my presidency.”
Challenges and successes are part of the disability experience in our country. Every loss and victory is a learning experience. Future challenges will be met with an attitude of cooperation rather than conflict.
On the 15th ADA’s anniversary, I am grateful for the courage of all the heroic disability leaders and their supporters who made the law a reality. I am especially happy my childhood hero Helen Keller, who was born blind, deaf, and speechless, will soon have a place in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. One day there will be many other disabled leaders alongside her.
Washington writer and father of a hearing-impaired child.