The ADA at 29

By: Karen Tamley

Disability Lead
Power. Influence. Change.
5 min readJul 26, 2019


Kevin Irvine and Karen Tamley, longtime disability rights advocates, attend the March for Justice Rally in 2000. PC: Tim Olin
Kevin Irvine and Karen Tamley, longtime disability rights advocates from Chicago, attend the historic March for Justice Rally in 2000 in Washington D.C. Photo by Tom Olin.

Karen Tamley is Commissioner of the City of Chicago Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD). In this role, she leads disability policy and inclusion initiatives that support MOPD’s vision of making Chicago the most accessible city in the nation. In 2016, Commissioner Tamley was appointed by President Barack Obama to the United States Access Board, an independent federal agency that develops national accessibility guidelines and standards. She was elected chair of the Access Board in March 2019. Commissioner Tamley has also served as a co-chair of ADA 25 Advancing Leadership’s Executive Committee since its inception in 2015 and will be the President of its new Board. She co-chairs the Chicago Community Trust Disabilities Fund Advisory Board.

July 26, 1990, was hot and sticky, a typical summer day in Washington, D.C. The heat was oppressive, but it didn’t stop the more-than-2,000 attendees gathered on the White House lawn to watch President George H.W. Bush sign the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. At 22 years old, I was lucky enough to be one of them.

My first job out of college had taken me across the country to Washington, where I was interning with disability rights attorney Tim Cook. Although I was born with a disability and had used a wheelchair from a young age, the internship was my first real exposure to the disability movement.

Tim was a wonderful mentor to me. I didn’t realize it then, but he taught me so much of what I would need to know for my future career as a disability rights leader. When Tim came up with an extra ticket to the signing of the ADA — a bill he had helped draft — he insisted that I go.

As I sat outside the White House on that sweltering day, watching the exuberant crowd, I realized it was the first time I had ever been around that many people with disabilities. It was a proud moment — all of us visible and united around the codification of our civil rights that our community had spent decades fighting for.

Karen Tamley presenting at the Disability Inclusion Opportunity Summit in 2015.
Karen Tamley presenting at the Disability Inclusion Opportunity Summit in 2015.

Looking back on that day, 29 years later, I’m not sure I had any idea of what the ADA would actually change. The mindset of many people with disabilities at the time was one of tragic acceptance, with no realistic hope for an existence where barriers, discrimination, and exclusion from everyday life weren’t the norm. But the ADA would change so many lives, including mine, in ways I never could have imagined.

As a young student, I was bussed every day to a school for children with disabilities. Today the idea of my daughter, who has a disability, going to a separate school is unthinkable because of the ADA. When I was growing up, if I wanted to ride a public bus with my friends, I had to be carried onto it. Now I can ride any bus in the country. I can cross the street independently, get into most stores and restaurants, and choose which establishments to support with my money and business. All because of the ADA.

The ADA has inspired us not only to dream big, but to make our dreams a reality. In 1990, just 6% of Chicago’s public rail stations were compliant with ADA standards. Today, the number of accessible stations has reached over 70%, and our busses and train cars are fully accessible. Moreover, the City of Chicago has made a commitment that within the next two decades, our entire public transit system will be 100% accessible.

Of course, we still have work to do to deliver on the promise of the ADA. Although the law has empowered many people, our community continues to be underrepresented in employment and civic life. We need to support more individuals with disabilities advance in their careers and assume civic leadership roles. Doing so will not only increase economic mobility and lift people out of poverty, but continue to propel the disability movement and strengthen our whole community and the Chicago region.

Azeema Akram holds up a paper document for Karen Tamley to examine. Karen sits at a table, indoors, at an ADA 25 event.
Karen Tamley and Azeema Akram looking over documents in conversation at ADA 25 Advancing Leadership’s Disability Power and Influence Symposium.

When it comes to breaking down leadership barriers for individuals with disabilities, Chicago is leading the way. Our region is home to ADA 25 Advancing Leadership, the only program in the nation that provides a platform for individuals with disabilities to grow as leaders and connect to real opportunities for their civic and professional leadership.

Since Advancing Leadership’s launch in 2015, Chicagoans with disabilities have made over 140 leadership advancements, meaning they’ve been promoted at work, appointed to nonprofit boards and public service. Our Members Network of 113 includes our current and past Fellows who have been connected to mentors to champion their leadership growth — just as Tim did for me. We must continue efforts like these to ensure that individuals with disabilities have the opportunity to not only experience all that community life has to offer, but to shape it as well.

As we celebrate the 29th anniversary of the Americans with the Disabilities Act, we should rightly honor the progress we’ve made toward realizing the law’s vision of equal opportunity and full inclusion for Americans of all abilities. At the same time, we must renew our commitment to making the ADA come alive so that everyone has an equal chance to pursue their dreams, live their best life, and contribute fully to their community.

What will your leadership legacy be? Applications are now open for the 2020 Leadership Institute. We’re looking for energetic, aspiring leaders with disabilities passionate about making change. If you submit an application before September 9, 2019, you are guaranteed an interview. The final deadline to apply is October 9, 2019.

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON SOCIAL: July 26, 1990, was a day that broke down barriers and changed the lives of millions of Americans with disabilities. Read Commissioner Karen Tamley’s reflections on the 29th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.



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