Twenty-eight years ago today, on July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. It was a watershed moment in American civil rights history, promising people with disabilities equal access to government, businesses, public accommodation, employment and the life of society. President Bush said that the law “represents the full flowering of our own democratic principles.” It was, as many declared, “The Emancipation Proclamation for the Disabled.”
Today, there are nearly 60 million Americans who benefit from the ADA’s protections. That number includes many of the people who campaigned for equal access in the 1980s, but also tens of millions who have been born with or acquired a disability since.
I became disabled in 2012, and have benefitted immensely from the work of the disability advocates who came before me. The people with disabilities who first began, as Arlene Mayerson described, “to challenge societal barriers that excluded them from their communities.” The calls, letters, rallies, demonstrations, sit-ins and marches that led to the ADA becoming law all took place before I was born. And it wasn’t until I emerged from the hospital with a new disability of my own that I recognized these people for what they truly were — heroes.
Opening America to People with Disabilities
If you’re like me, you value participation in society and wouldn’t want to live in a world without the ADA. This blog is a place where I share possibility, and I’d like to list a few of the things I’ve done in the past year that were only possible because the ADA exists.
I visited the Statue of Liberty.
Earlier this year, I had the chance to take a wheelchair accessible tour of the Statue of Liberty. In the years after the ADA became law, national park sites like this one were opened to people with disabilities.
In 2012, during renovations and safety improvements to Lady Liberty, an elevator was installed to provide access to the pedestal for those with reduced mobility. Because of that work, I was able to enjoy a beautiful day in New York Harbor with one of the most recognizable symbols of American freedom and liberty in the background.
I used public and private transportation to get around.
One of the areas most impacted by ADA regulations is the transportation sector. People with disabilities have an equal right to make use of public transportation, and for the most part, most cities have made strong efforts to comply.
While some major cities are lagging behind (looking at you, Boston and New York), other cities like Dallas and Milwaukee have 100% accessible public transit systems.
The ADA has also opened services like Amtrak, Greyhound, Megabus and SuperShuttle to people with disabilities. There is certainly more work to do, particularly in the areas of wheelchair accessible taxi services, but in most cases we are moving in the right direction.
I stayed in an accessible hotel room.
If you’ve been a reader for some time, you’ll know that I am tough on U.S. hotels that fail to meet the ADA accessibility standards. On the flip side, I fawn over those that do.
When people with disabilities travel, we need a place to sleep, shower and shave. While there are issues with ADA compliance across the industry, there are many hotels that have done accessible hotel rooms the right way. Without access to specially adapted rooms with grab bars and a roll-in shower, I wouldn’t be able to travel. I’m grateful to the hotels that are accessible to me, and hope we can push more to become accessible in the future (more on that later).
Moving Forward: Protecting the ADA’s Legacy
Each of us has a duty to advocate on behalf of our own civil rights, and to uphold the legacy that was left to us. But we must also recognize that the ADA was just a step towards true equality, and more effort will be required.
Fend off legislative attacks like H.R. 620
The ADA was made possible in 1990 because of a bipartisan commitment to the American dream. Lawmakers on all sides of the aisle recognized that people with disabilities deserved the same opportunities as their able-bodied peers. I’m not cynical and believe that still holds true today as one of our nation’s core values, even with politics being so polarized.
Still, we must work to defeat legislation that would place those values, and our right to equal access, in jeopardy. H.R. 620, the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017, is one such example. While I believe the bill is dead this time around, expect to see it brought up again in the next congress.
Adapt the ADA to the modern economy
The ADA was written at a time before smartphones, Uber and AirBnB, and it has been slow to adapt to our changing economy. Accessibility regulations must be updated more frequently and, wherever possible, to keep up with innovation.
Shared ride apps like Uber and Lyft have already reduced the number of wheelchair accessible taxis in many cities around the country, have prevented their introduction in smaller cities, and have eliminated them from others. Businesses must ensure that their services can be used by people with disabilities, and we must affirm that civil rights are non-negotiable.
Rethink the ADA enforcement process
At 28 years after the ADA became law, and 26 years after its regulations took effect, there is no excuse for non-compliance. The grace period is over, and we must commit to enforcing the law’s equal access provisions.
While the U.S. Department of Justice has taken up some high-profile cases affecting the travel industry (Hilton Hotels in 2010, Greyhound Bus in 2016), there are thousands more cases that are needed to combat disability discrimination.
Congress should revisit the ADA to add new enforcement options and greater resources for the Justice Department. Many of these costs could be offset with increased fines for businesses that fail to comply.
State and local governments could also play a role. Buildings must pass safety and fire inspections before they can be used, so why not include an ADA inspection as well? The fact that hundreds of brand-new hotels are opening each year with major ADA violations should concern us all, and speaks to a much larger problem in our construction practices.
As Americans with disabilities, we have a lot to be thankful for. Compared to disabled people in other parts of the world, we drew a good hand of cards. In my case, life didn’t have to end with disability because an accessible country was waiting.
But not everyone receives an equal benefit from the ADA. Accessible transportation options and services for the disabled vary widely across city and state lines, and many of us are left behind. Our advocacy must continue until we have achieved total accessibility, and I suspect that process will require the work of our generation and the next.
So let’s use this day, this anniversary and the stories of our accessibility heroes and heroines as inspiration for the work that lies ahead.
What does the ADA mean to you? How has it impacted your life? Share your ADA story in the comments below.