Progressing Backwards, 28 Years of The Americans With Disabilities Act
28 years ago, on July 26th, 1990, America changed for the better. On the South Lawn of the White House, in front of nearly 3000 people, President H. W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act. Three years prior to that, I was a victim in a car accident in which a driver under the influence of alcohol swerved and hit my family’s car head on. The accident forever made me a member of the disability community. At four years old, I had to learn how to navigate the world without the use of my legs and without my mother: a world that wasn’t designed for people like me.
One key to the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act was the understanding that change would not happen overnight. Existing businesses and infrastructure could remain, as is, until there was a major renovation, at which point barriers to accessibility had to be removed. My journey as a wheelchair user saw ramps and curb cuts go from a pleasant surprise in any given neighborhood to a common sight while navigating Pittsburgh. My movie-going experience changed from climbing out of my wheelchair into a theater seat (an option not available to many using wheelchairs) to having theater style seating with prominent, and well-placed, accessible seating in all modern theaters. Decisions and discussions about which school was an option if I didn’t feel comfortable being carried up steps, or whether I should work on my lap or sit beside the desk (complete with attached chair) have largely disappeared. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized the significant problems and dangers of navigating the world in this way. Depression because I was treated differently from my classmates. The fire hazard of being out and away from my wheelchair in a movie theater. The danger of being in the street during a walk because I couldn’t get up onto the sidewalk.
Progress has been steady, but slow. There are still barriers that restrict how people with disabilities engage with their communities. I still encounter issues daily; going out with friends and finding the bar or restaurant has steps or attempting to park at a business and their accessible spaces are sloped so badly my chair could roll into traffic. These challenges are frustrating, but easy to deal with and involve taking my business elsewhere. Going for job interviews and finding no accessible way to enter the building, however, has no easy solution. It’s the flip side of those businesses not being accessible that people don’t often think about. “Take your business elsewhere” while looking for a job is a luxury most can’t afford, especially right out of school. The less opportunities available, the fewer chances someone has to gain work experience and financial independence.
That slow progress towards accessible and inclusive communities has been under attack recently, making people with disabilities worried about their place in society. The disability community has seen the same party that signed the ADA into law make a sharp turn against equal protections for people with disabilities. The Republican-led Senate rejected a UN treaty on disability rights based on the historic law their party signed 28 years ago. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded guiding documents meant to offer clarity about accessibility policy that businesses should follow. Republicans in the House passed a bill that would gut key provisions in the Americans With Disabilities Act, making it harder for people with disabilities to ensure businesses complied with the law. Republicans attempted to remove protections offered in the Affordable Care Act, designed to provide equal access to healthcare for people with pre-existing conditions. President Trump’s signature on an executive order enabled states to impose more work requirements on Medicaid, a major life-line for people with disabilities.
It’s time America looks in the mirror and makes a decision about who we want to be as a country. Are we the land of opportunity, creating equal opportunities for people to reach their potential, to live and contribute to society? Or does each person have to go it alone, caring only for what works for them in that moment, not caring about equality until a family issue or an accident lands on their doorstep? 31 years ago it landed at my family’s door, and 28 years ago I thought our nation had this figured out.