Coauthored by Sara Shemali and James O’Connor
Two women pose for a photo in front of the Capitol Building. One of the women is using an electric wheelchair.
“When I was 15 or 16 years old my best friend, my sister and I decided to go out for ice cream. We went to a new shop in the town nearby. Even though it was a new building, it was an old style ice cream shop that had been built to invoke that aesthetic; and, there was no ramp in the front of the store– only steps. The only ramp was in the back, leading up to the emergency exit. The employees told us they weren’t allowed to let us in through the back door. We were shocked but, after arguing and getting nowhere, we went someplace else. When we got home, I was still pretty upset. When my mom asked what happened, we told her the story. And she explained to me that what I had experienced was discrimination and illegal under the ADA. I think that was the first time I really understood what the ADA meant for me as a person with a disability.“
This is what our supervisor, Karin Hitselberger, said when asked about her most memorable experience of the ADA as a child. We spoke to her and Kaitlyn Meuser, the Marketing Specialist here at United Cerebral Palsy’s National Office, right before today’s 27th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because we wanted to gain insight into the many ways that the ADA has shaped the experiences of individuals with disabilities in America.
As Program and Development interns for UCP’s National Office, James and I started our summer with a lot to learn about the history of the disability rights movement. We both carried what turned out to be fairly common misconceptions about the ADA, and we asked Karin and Kaitlyn, who both happen to have cerebral palsy, about some of those most common misconceptions.
For me, learning more about the ADA throughout my internship, I realized just how comprehensive of a piece of legislation the ADA is. Whereas some may know it only as the law that regulates curb cuts and ramps, or just an anti-discrimination law, in reality it serves both of those purposes in addition to many more. Karin continued by highlighting just how multifaceted the ADA is. She pointed out the misconception and tendency to discuss the ADA in only one of its many capacities, without appreciating the diverse avenues in which it helps individuals with disabilities.
Karin also discussed the pivotal role that individuals with disabilities played in crafting the ADA. While the role of passionate allies cannot be overlooked, the engagement of individuals who encounter the barriers that the ADA addresses daily was crucial to passing the ADA law that we know today.
As a person without a disability, I had experienced the ADA in action even before I became an intern at UCP, although I had always witnessed it as an outside observer. One vivid memory I will always remember is a neighbor of mine, with cerebral palsy, whose mother had to advocate for him to be involved in gym class, and given the reasonable accommodations he needed to participate. Gym class was a privilege I had always taken for granted, but he had to fight to be afforded the opportunity I had. Interning at UCP has allowed me to step out of my bystander role and become more informed and involved on issues related to disability. Instances of discrimination in schools, hiring, and the workplace still occur today, but one point both Karin and Kaitlyn brought up was that because of the passage of the ADA, such discrimination is illegal (such as refusal to provide reasonable accommodations), and action can be taken to stop these practices. The ADA sets a baseline: a clear standard for inclusion, which is not only vital in itself but also opens the door to continue the conversation about disability and the next steps towards truly equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities.
My fellow intern James shares his perspective below:
When I started my summer here at UCP National, I was at least aware of the existence of the ADA, but was not even close to understanding its importance. As I have gotten to know more people who have been personally impacted by this legislation, and learned more about the history of the disability rights movement, I’ve come to understand how transformative the ADA has been to the disability community. It has enabled so many people to work, travel, and access the world around them.
My experience at UCP has allowed me to connect the curb-cuts and accessible elevators, that I see everyday, to the freedom and rights of the friends I have made here. I’ve had the pleasure of traveling to and from various events with Karin, who uses a wheelchair, and have had to rethink so much that I previously took for granted. I now find myself constantly looking for ramps and elevators, and generally reevaluating the accessibility of my surroundings. It really has fundamentally changed the way that I see the world, and I feel that I am beginning to understand how important the ADA is as a result.
Although the ADA is a much-needed starting point for legislation regarding disability, Karin and Kaitlyn agree there is more work that needs to be done to remove substantial barriers that individuals with disabilities still face. Getting into buildings is a right that needs to be afforded to individuals with disabilities, but access to the building itself is not the end of accessibility. Karin points out that physically having the ability to get into a movie theatre isn’t enough if a wheelchair user wouldn’t have anywhere to sit, or if there are no closed captions for someone who is Deaf. Cultural inclusion and universal design for individuals with disabilities are both still a work in progress.
While there is work remaining to continue to advance the rights of people with disabilities, it is of paramount importance to reflect on how much closer the ADA has brought us towards the ideals of equality and civil rights for all people.