Today is the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This landmark legislation guaranteed increased access for people with disabilities in almost every facet of community life. The doors to full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for persons with disabilities opened metaphorically and literally in many cases.
As an organization which serves and supports people with a broad range of disabilities and their families, UCP is keenly aware of the profound difference this singular act made in the lives of so many people – whether they realize it or not.
At the 25 year mark, there now exists an entire generation of people with disabilities who have matured into adulthood under the legal protections of the ADA. They expect accessible entrances to public building, wheelchair ramps and curb cuts, closed-captioning and sign language interpreters, and accessible public transportation options. And, for 20-somethings without disabilities, these accommodations have become a part of their consciousness as well. Even if they don’t experience disability personally, many people benefit from the changes brought about by the ADA. Just think of the young mother with a stroller who no longer has to deal with high curbs at each crosswalk.
However, there are still physical and attitudinal challenges to overcome and advocates are still needed. Every year, investigations are open and lawsuits are filed over issues of ADA compliance. And, every year, government officials, disability experts, lawyers and judges debate the meaning and application of various provisions in the law. Are the drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft independent contractors, not necessarily bound by the ADA? Are service animals always allowed in public school classrooms no matter the circumstances? What, exactly, do the words “reasonable accommodations” mean?
Like any other law, we will continue to debate the details and try to adapt interpretation of the now decades-old language to a rapidly changing landscape. However, we think that the true accomplishment of the ADA will not ultimately be judged by changes to transportation, education, or access to a local public library. The real victory to be claimed by the disability advocates and allies who worked for the law is the opportunity it provides for people with disabilities to face each new day with dignity that comes with full equality.
Regardless of the tactics it employs, the law explicitly states that:
“Physical or mental disabilities in no way diminish a person’s right to fully participate in all aspects of society…”
It makes the unequivocal statement that in the eyes of Congress, representatives of “We the People,” people with disabilities are people, first and foremost, as well as full citizens of the United States. It is a recognition that the aspects of our society which prevent a person with a disability from being fully able to participate need to be addressed and Congress intends to provide a “…national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.” It is the law of the land and confirmation that people with disabilities should never again have to accept anything less than opportunities provided to their peers.