Twenty-five years ago, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act and changed the world for the able and disabled alike.
Curbs grew cuts for wheelchairs. Buses learned to kneel. Buildings extended ramps beside steps. Doors widened, and buttons appeared for automatic opening. Hotels created roll-in showers. Businesses and government buildings reserved parking spaces for the handicapped. ATM machines began providing instructions in braille. On some street corners, traffic signals beep and say when to walk.
Changes brought by the ADA have made the disabled more able. That achievement speaks of the power of legislation to help people. And it speaks especially loudly today when Congress seems unable to agree on anything that would broadly improve the lives of Americans.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the chief Senate sponsor of the ADA, said in December in his farewell address after serving 40 years in Congress, “Not one nickel or dime in the ADA is given to a person with a disability. But we broke down barriers, opened doors of accessibility and accommodation, and said to people with disabilities – Now go on, follow your dreams, and in the words of the Army motto, ‘be all you can be.’
“Government must not be just an observant bystander, it must be a force for good, for lifting people up, for giving hope to the hopeless.”
The North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities and other groups that support the disabled are marking the ADA’s milestone anniversary this summer. The council will hold awards ceremonies, picnics and breakfast events around the state culminating in celebrations in Asheville, Greenville and Raleigh on July 26, the actual date of the signing in 1990.
More than the disabled will have cause to celebrate. So will their families and friends and all who wish for all people to be able to participate as fully as possible in society and in the economy. As Christopher Egan, the council’s executive director, notes, the ADA’s changes ultimately help not only those born or rendered disabled, but also all who live long enough to lose some ability to walk, see or hear.
The ADA’s anniversary offers a chance for Americans to appreciate how much has been done. Yet there’s more to do. The ADA was adopted with four goals: full participation, equal opportunity, independent living and economic self-sufficiency. Great progress has been made on goals one and two. The last two are not yet within reach for most disabled people.
“The ADA has moved us leaps and bounds forward in accessibility and acceptance for people with a disability. We still have a lot of work to do, though,” says, Corye Dunn, director of public policy for Disability Rights of North Carolina. Dunn’s group still has to take regular legal action over issues of accessibility and discrimination.
One major issue is that while the disabled can more easily get into buildings, they still struggle to get into jobs. Harkin said in his speech, “How many of us know that the unemployment rate among adult Americans with disabilities who want to work and can work is over 60 percent? Yes, you heard me right: almost two out of three people with disabilities cannot find a job. That is a blot on our national character.”
Dunn says of unemployment among the disabled, “It is enormous. It comes from inadequate support for access to employment and the kinds of bias that has worked against (disabled) people forever.”
The power of the law accounts for a great deal of the ADA’s success in creating paths through a world full of obstacles. Over the next 25 years, other forces may play larger roles in granting the disabled greater independence. One of them is the development of technologies that make it easier for the disabled to live alone and work either in an office or remotely by computer. The other is evolving attitudes.
“Building the expectation that people with disabilities can and should work – changing people’s assumptions – may be the hardest part,” Dunn says.
Unlike doorways, minds cannot be broadened by regulation. It will take education and leadership.
What it does
The ADA and ADA Amendments Act of 2008 gave civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, age, sex, national origin and religion.