Sunday, March 26, 2023
March 26, 2023

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In Our View: ADA Changed U.S. for Better

Landmark law protecting rights of those with disabilities has far-reaching effects

The Columbian
Published:

Two barometers, in particular, point out the success and the importance of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

One is the fact that the manifestations of the act are a part of everyday life. Wheelchair ramps on buildings; lifts on public transit; lowered drinking fountains; wheelchair-accessible toilet stalls; ATMs marked with Braille; closed captioning on TV shows — each of these advancements can be traced to the moment President George H.W. Bush said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down,” as he signed the ADA into law 25 years ago this week.

The other is the fact that 181 countries have adopted disability civil rights laws based upon the law that fundamentally altered life for millions of people in the United States, leading NPR to note that “the act has become one of America’s most successful exports.”

Yes, in the quarter-century of its existence, the Americans with Disabilities Act has transformed lives and helped the nation adhere to its ideals of inclusion and opportunity for all, serving as an oft-overlooked aspect of the civil rights movement. According to a 2010 federal survey, some 56.7 million non-institutionalized Americans have a disability, the kind that previously could lead to discrimination in employment, housing, and access to necessities.

Consider the case of Judy Heumann, who contracted polio as an infant in 1949. When it came time to start her schooling, her New York City school objected, saying her wheelchair would be a fire hazard; her mother fought that decision and won. Heumann went on to college and earned a degree in speech therapy to help children with disabilities, but when she sought a job, the New York school system again rejected her. She moved to California, became an advocate for those with disabilities, and wound up as an assistant secretary of education in the Clinton administration.

Heumann’s success story predates the ADA legislation, and yet it brings up questions about how many qualified people have been shunned or rejected over the years because society focused on their disabilities rather than their abilities. A shameful wall of exclusion, indeed. As many advocates have noted, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 created access for minorities by opening a door; the Americans with Disabilities Act created access by rebuilding the door.

Not that all doors have been altered. According to 2014 government statistics, 17.1 percent of people with a disability were employed, compared with 64.6 percent of those without a disability. This despite a recent survey that found two-thirds of American adults with disabilities are “striving to work.” “It’s a way of describing how active people with disabilities are in the labor market,” said Andrew Houtenville of the University of New Hampshire Institute of Disability, which conducted the survey. “It’s not just about sitting back and taking benefits.”

Yet, while barriers remain for many with disabilities, the 1990 law has had a profound impact, and it rightly has grown to be considered a matter of civil rights. “What the U.S. really inspires people to do — is to do,” Heumann told a recent international conference on disability rights. “It’s to say that we don’t accept certain things.”

That is the lingering benefit of the Americans with Disabilities Act — a societal declaration that all citizens should be able to reach a drinking fountain or ride the bus or attend their local high school. It is a simplistic ethos, and yet it has had a life-changing effect for millions.

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