Day by Day
ADA’s passage brought rights, responsibilities
By LIZ THOMPSON
July 20, 2015
This Week News
The signing of the historic Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, 1990, was in some ways just a start. But in many ways, it was a long time coming.
Something this momentous doesn’t fall from the sky, as I’ve heard said. It happens because thousands of people with disabilities have said, in one form or another, “See me. Hear me. I’m a person with rights, just like everyone on this earth.”
The ADA is the nation’s first comprehensive civil rights law addressing the needs of people with disabilities, prohibiting discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations and telecommunications.
President George H.W. Bush stated, after signing the ADA, “Three weeks ago we celebrated our nation’s Independence Day. Today we’re here to rejoice in and celebrate another ‘independence day,’ one that is long overdue. With today’s signing of the landmark ADA, every man, woman and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence and freedom.”
Those doors Bush speaks of are literal and symbolic. Yes, entry into a physical door, for someone using a wheelchair, was nearly impossible, but entry into employment and many educational situations held the same barriers.
Legally, the historic shift in the direction of the 25-year-old ADA began notably 42 years ago, in 1973, with the passage of Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act.
“Section 504, which banned discrimination on the basis of disability by recipients of federal funds, was modeled after previous laws which banned race, ethnic origin and sex-based discrimination by federal fund recipients,” said Arlene Mayerson of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.
Mayerson also wrote that it was the first time that excluding people with disabilities was viewed as discrimination. Generally, it was assumed that problems faced by this group, such as unemployment and lack of education, were “inevitable consequences of the physical or mental limitations imposed by the disability itself.”
Before public education showed what could be done to include those with disabilities in society, it was an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. Ramps and curb cuts were rare, if in existence at all.
Here we are talking about the physical limitations, but many disabilities are invisible, such as hearing loss and emotional or psychological struggles.
The word disability seems to hold a negative impact. Whereas, in the past, the word handicapped was widely used, then disability, now special needs is being used more easily. The dictionary defines disability as “a disadvantage or deficiency, especially a physical or mental impairment that prevents or restricts normal achievement.” Separate the word as dis-ability and put special in front and you have special ability.
Defining normal achievement might be impossible. What is normal for one person might be an exceptional achievement for another.
Learning to adapt to restrictions, even as we age, is status quo for many, even without a defined disability. Conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, insomnia, diabetes, depression, and knee and other joint problems all create some sort of need to change how things get done.
Besides medication, it might mean physical therapy or special diets. But I am convinced, since our bodies will never be perfect, that we all struggle with some kind of deficiency, or lack of ability to operate at full speed. Call it disability, if you will, because we are not performing at optimal ability.
At the 10-year ADA anniversary celebration, U.S. Sen. Bob Dole said, “Disabilities do not discriminate. At any moment, anyone can become disabled.”
He knew this personally as he became disabled with a serious war injury. His recovery was slow, leaving him without the use of his right arm. He said a doctor who treated him “inspired me to focus on what I had left and what I could do with it, rather than complaining what had been lost.”
Those of us with disabilities with a medical diagnosis do just that: focus on what we can do, not what we cannot.
Many of the outcomes of the ADA are good for society as a whole. Ramps and curb cuts allow everyone to cross a street without stepping off a curb; automatic doors, and ramps into these same doors, make entry into any building a breeze. And if we find our physical or psychological needs changing, we know we can safely talk with our employer to accommodate us, even for the short term.
Thank you to the unsung heroes who stepped forward for those who could not.