20 Years of Equality & Inclusion
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 20 percent of Americans (or about 54 million) have a legally qualifying disability. I am part of that 20 percent or one in five. Despite being part of a significant minority, prior to 1990, recognition of the equal access and equal rights of people with disabilities in our society was nonexistent.
A person with a disability is a minority that crosses all the other groups. A person with a disability can be young, old, rich, poor, any ethnic or cultural group, gender or sexual orientation. A disability can affect any of us at any time regardless of our station in life. America’s core values, as I’ve always known my country, has focused on being a land of inclusion with the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all, though not without some amount of struggle for each and every one of us.
As I reflect on the recent 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I think about it as a testament to the fact that change really can happen in incredible and profound ways and, like a ripple in a lake, continues to spread outward.
The passage of the ADA on July 26, 1990, was the highlight of my teens. It ushered in, for me, long overdue access to the American Dream for people with disabilities like me. This legislation, distinctly American, revolutionized and transformed the lives of all people all over the country for the better, but we still have far to go, if not in legislation, then in how others receive and perceive us in the human community. At least it opens a dialogue for changing mindsets.
The ADA opened wide the doors to better education, more employment opportunities, accessible transportation and essential socialization making people with disabilities relevant to humanity, rather than outcasts. We now have a clear laser lighting the way for people with disabilities to be equal participants in society and realize our full potential.
With the power of the pen, and the words of “The Father of the ADA” Justin Dart, Jr., the law finally stated that people with disabilities have the right to go to school, get a job, travel on an airplane, use various means of communication and otherwise experience life to the fullest. Without the ADA, I’m unsure how I and other people with disabilities would live in an apartment, work full-time, use public transportation, go to the store, watch a football game or safely cross the street.
The ADA has set clear, unambiguous guidelines for engineering, architecture and human resources, with no bias, to level the playing field so we can access life’s experiences. It spells out what to do to give everyone equal access.
Critics may argue that the ADA gives people with disabilities special treatment, but we aren’t asking for special. I and others just want access to what everyone else has. Consider if anything ever happens to you and your abilities (or that of a loved one’s) were suddenly taken away. Wouldn’t you be thrilled to know this law protects you, too?
So, upon reflecting on the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I am encouraged by the progress made in providing equal opportunity and changing negative perceptions and stereotypes. We have come far in just 20 years, but there is still more work to be done.
Though physical access has improved by leaps and bounds, the biggest challenges still faced by people like me are psychological and social. People ask me if the ADA has actually focused more attention on my disability. Maybe it has, but it has also focused on opening dialogues about what it means to have a disability and what we as a population want from the world of our peers who don’t have disabilities. I’m confident, though, that as we break down more physical barriers, and the more we are seen out in the community living our lives as we were choose, America can be a role model to the rest of the plant to create equal access and equal opportunity, embodied by the ADA.
If there’s anything that people without disabilities don’t know about us living with disabilities, I encourage us all to be good ambassadors of the desire to love equally and without barriers to our dreams and aspirations as part of the human community. I invite my brothers and sisters in advocacy to be those ambassadors and to open your mouths and hearts wide to people who ‘just don’t get it’ quite yet.
It’s been 20 years, yes I know, but people don’t know what they don’t know and all we can do is light the way to the road of equal access and inclusion for others who still don’t quite understand.