30 years ago today, then President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act.
He did it in an outdoor ceremony at the White House, surrounded by key Members of Congress who helped draft and pass the bill, flanked by veteran disability activists Justin Dart and Evan Kemp, Jr., and with thousands of disabled activists in the audience. The signing was proudly displayed, not done behind the scenes, not buried or hidden. Despite a good deal overheated panic about the supposedly terrible costs of the new law to American business, the Bush Administration was proud of the ADA, and wanted its signing to be celebration, for itself of course, but mainly for the disabled people who fought so hard to make a comprehensive federal disability rights law a reality.
The ADA wasn’t the first important disability rights law. That distinction probably belongs to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which was passed in 1973 and finally implemented in 1975, after massive and lengthy protests at federal offices around the country. You can learn a lot about that fight by watching the Netflix documentary, “Crip Camp.” But many of the principles established by Section 504 for federal programs were extended to the private sector in the ADA 15 years later.
30 years later still, what does the ADA mean?
To a casual observer at the time, maybe watching on the evening news, that July signing might have seemed like the end of the disability rights movement. Disabled people got what they said they wanted. Problems solved!
For disability activists who fought to craft and pass the ADA, it felt more like “the end of the beginning” of a long struggle for something close to comprehensive disability rights. They knew they had work ahead to do, to make the law a practical reality. But a turning point had been reached, and their struggle could no longer be entirely ignored.
For me, and for most disabled people at the time, passage of the ADA was really the beginning of the movement, not the end. I was just starting work at an Independent Living Center. I barely knew what the term “disability rights” even meant. I had some sense that it involved rights rather than charity. I knew basically what the law covered and contained, because teaching others about it was about to be part of my job. But I had played no role in the movement to pass the ADA, and I still knew almost nothing about the history leading up to it.
For me at the time, the ADA was part blueprint, part how-to manual, and part manifesto that gave shape to what was previously in my mind a very hazy mist of feelings about what disability was. Having lifelong disabilities, I felt pretty clear about what disability meant as a personal and medical matter, but I was only starting to think of what it meant to me as a citizen and a consumer. And as I set out to inform my community about what the ADA required of them, and what it meant to disabled people, the ADA itself taught me about my own experience of disability.
The ADA has taught me that:
- I have a right to go wherever I wanted to go, whether or not my disabilities make it convenient.
- I can try to do things my interests call me to do, even if my disabilities make it complicated.
- It isn’t my sole responsibility to adjust myself to my disabilities. I can expect other people to play a part too.
- Disabled people can change the previously iron-clad conditions of being disabled through policy-making and politics.
- I can be proud of being disabled, not just “okay” with it.
More importantly, I soon came to understand that the fight wasn’t over. It was just the beginning. I realized early on that the ADA really was just a first step, not a final victory … for several reasons:
- Congress passed it, and the President signed it, but plenty of people and businesses were not convinced.
- We knew that official enforcement would be fairly minimal. We would have to make the ADA work, using the tools it provided.
- The ADA didn’t win the argument for us. It gave us better, stronger arguments to use.
At the time, it felt like the ADA was the best we could do. Today it’s much easier to see its limitations and weaknesses. It’s one thing to accept that “the fight goes on” 5 or even 10 years after the ADA passed. It’s quite another to still be acting like it’s a new thing after 30 years have passed, and so many aspects of the ADA seem only partially implemented or respected. There is no longer any reasonable excuse for any entity not complying with the ADA. We have a right to expect better by now, much better.
But where does saying that get us? We are right to be angry, but so what? What can we do?
First, we can get reacquainted with the ADA itself, what exactly it does and doesn’t say, and how it was intended to work.
Second, we mustn’t fall for arguments to weaken it, or campaigns to portray it as unfair or abused.
Third, let’s make sure that our advocacy efforts include all people with disabilities, of all races, genders, ethnicities, educational and employment experiences, incomes, classes, and types of disability. There’s a reason why the ADA was’t limited to a narrow list of “which disabled people” were covered. Instead it set up a sensible but flexible definition of disability, which has served the disabled community well. But we ourselves have to view the law more broadly than we typically do. It’s not just for wheelchair users and white-collar workers with college degrees.
Finally, we can recommit to noticing violations, complaining, and making the arguments … no matter how tedious and unsatisfying these processes might be.
Don’t just roll your eyes about an inaccessible restaurant. Speak to the owner. Tell your family and friends. Comment about it on Yelp. Work with your ILC to address accessibility in your area. Insist on accessibility in your city, town, or county government … the buildings and meetings, but also their websites. And in your job searches and workplaces, make it known that you know your rights. Don’t be shy about it.
The 30th Anniversary of the ADA is the perfect time to get proud and proactive about it once again, the way we were way back on a sunny summer afternoon in 1990.
Andrew Pulrang spent many years working at the North Country Center for Independence in Plattsburgh, NY, most recently as the Executive Director. He is a co-coordinator with disability activists Alice Wong and Gregg Beratan of the Twitter hashtag, #CripTheVote, focused on discussing the participation and leadership of disabled people in voting, politics, and disability policy.
Published on July 24, 2020