Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act, or ADA, a historic piece of civil rights legislation that broke barriers and opened public spaces to hundreds of thousands of Americans that, prior to its passage, were treated and viewed as second-class citizens. The ADA stood for the simple proposition that no one should be the target of discrimination simply because of a disability and that discrimination begins to end the moment access begins to happen.
The achievements of the ADA are really quite remarkable. Today it is illegal to deny a person employment because of a disability, to deny someone an education because of a disability and to deny someone access to your facility because of a disability. In twenty years it has helped nearly 50 million Americans achieve a level of integration and independence previously unheard of. The good news is, the list of achievements continues to grow.
Take access to voting, for example. In 2000 polling places around the country lacked appropriate accommodations to help enable disabled citizens to fill out ballots and participate, at its most rudimentary level, in our democracy. In 2008, according to the Government Accountability Office, many of those hurdles had been cleared as people with disabilities enjoyed greater access to polls and were able to vote with much greater ease.
But a series of victories in these kinds of battles does not mean the war against systemic and institutionalized discrimination has been won. In 2008 Congress enacted important reforms to make sure that the protections afforded by the ADA apply broadly to all individuals with disabilities, even if those conditions are not immediately apparent. Full employment for people with disabilities remains a significant challenge and access to fundamental spaces and services continues to be a challenge in certain parts of this country.
Perhaps the single greatest achievement over the past twenty years has been the ushering in of personal dignity and pride as an entire population is able to realize achievements and dreams thanks to the hard work of disability rights advocates and leaders. That translates into a sense of independence that no piece of legislation can unilaterally grant.
For today though let’s honor both the advocates who fought tirelessly for those who are often forgotten and left behind and made this day possible. Thank you for your continued efforts and struggles to make this a country where people with disabilities are not relegated to a life of poverty, institutions and inequality. By opening the doors for some, you’ve opened doors for us all.
photo courtesy of David Michael Morris via Flickr