A small slab of concrete isn’t often reason to cancel one’s evening plans. But to my wheelchair, even a small step might as well be the Berlin Wall.
So when a co-worker from my college summer internship and I approached a pizzeria recently and saw a step leading to the entrance, I mentally prepared to make other plans. The hostess peered out, looking embarrassed.
I asked whether there was an accessible entrance. Embarrassment became confusion.
“You know, the ADA?” my co-worker offered.
The hostess returned several minutes later and led us down a side alley to a ramp abutting the side of the restaurant.
This was a scene familiar for me and for many of the 57 million Americans with disabilities.
Were it not for the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark civil rights law that turns 25 tomorrow, I might not have been able to get into the restaurant at all.
I was born in 1992 – two years after passage of the ADA – and was paralyzed in a diving accident just before starting college. The only America I have known is the one where people with disabilities can brandish the full power of the law when a shop refuses entrance to a seeing-eye dog, when a court refuses to provide a sign-language interpreter, when a step threatens to prevent me from enjoying a slice of deep dish and an IPA along with every other customer.
Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and the law’s principal legislative champion, and other advocates have labeled me and my peers with disabilities members of the “ADA Generation” – the heirs to a society that is more accessible and more inclusive than any before.
But to brand us as such is to do more than simply celebrate successes. Implicit in this label, I think, is an invitation. It is an ethical and political call to arms to make this society – the result of decades of ambitious activism – even more inclusive than what was granted by the landmark law. We must dream bigger.
The ADA has achieved remarkable success in the past quarter century. It has created an expectation that people with disabilities can be productive members of the workforce, vastly improved the accessibility of transportation systems and enabled millions to participate in the shared life of their communities. The success of the law is visible everywhere because it is written in the architecture of our classrooms and workplaces; it is inscribed in the very landscape of our cities.
Still, those with disabilities continue to face challenges both complex and multifaceted. Rampant unemployment, gaping educational achievement disparities and diminished conceptions of self-worth remain.
I’m grateful for the success of the ADA, yet I can’t help but feel some frustration toward its mythical status as a panacea for the problems facing the disability community. The law has its limits.
By articulating the requirements for inclusion, the ADA marks a boundary; its laudable goal of equality threatens to become a ceiling. We can approach the goals of inclusion the law lays out – we might even achieve them – but can go no further.
The law says the pizzeria must have a ramp – of some sort. But it mandates neither convenience nor dignity, and the ADA framework is incapable of registering the fundamental difference between accommodation and equity, between toleration and inclusion.
And the ADA’s limits are more than just conceptual. It has created a culture of litigiousness – unwanted by many disability rights pioneers – where even good-faith attempts at inclusion are accompanied by a negative discourse of penalties and obligation. It is hard to be accommodating or even progressive when the threat of a lawsuit hangs in the air.
The public face of the ADA, then, is often one of compliance and compulsion. This is not how we should be thinking about disability.
Instead, we should frame discussions of disability in terms of the constructive role all citizens can play, no matter their ability. We should recognize that all citizens owe one another a basic degree of respect and dignity. We should push for principles of universal design and for increased representation of disability in the media because, as the gay rights movement has demonstrated, visibility and familiarity are fast lanes to acceptance.
So while we should celebrate the ADA’s anniversary and the progress it signifies, we should recognize that the pursuit of a truly inclusive society requires us to reach for more than mere compliance with a law.
Jay Ruckelshaus is a Harry S. Truman Scholar, senior at Duke University and disability rights advocate.