Thoughts on the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act
July 26 marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—a law that has greatly increased access, opportunities, and protections of people with disabilities in the U.S. As a person with rheumatoid arthritis who has lived with mobility disabilities and used a wheelchair for many years, this law has very positively impacted my life.
The ADA required adaptations that enabled me to get a college education and earn my degree. It opened doors with employers and mandated changes in infrastructure that has made it possible for me to use ramps, public transportation, and public locations (like stores, restaurants, and many other places).
Perhaps the best aspect of this law is the incremental change over time it has encouraged in people and society—the broader adoption of the concept that people with disabilities can and should be included in every aspect of our community. When I first moved to Washington, DC, and was working and living on my own, I remember the reaction of many people was astonishment. “You mean someone with disabilities and who uses a wheelchair, can work and live independently?”
Years later, surprise is less common, but ignorance and thoughtlessness is still around.
I recently attended a professional event featuring a lecture followed by a networking happy hour. I attended and enjoyed seeing friends and meeting new people before the lecture. Afterwards, everyone was invited onto the terrace for networking. But when I turned the corner I saw the doorway included a step. My wheelchair is awesome, but it does not levitate.
As I turned to leave, a well-meaning event organizer said “you can network with anyone left in the conference room.” I heard: “you’re not important so you can talk with the leftover people.”
I know I am being a little unkind, but I expect a little more 25 years after the ADA.
We can do better. We can include all people in networking. For example, we could network in the accessible conference room. We could network partially inside and partially on the terrace. We could come up with a lot of solutions that are not costly, yet also inclusive.
Most of the time I am the only person in the room representing people with disabilities. I consciously work at setting others at ease, conveying that I’m a regular, flawed person who just wants to be included. Sure my rheumatoid arthritis has affected my mobility and I use a wheelchair, but I’m still a person.
The world is a work in progress. We still have a lot of literal and figurative ramps to build. There’s a lot of change that can be celebrated after 25 years of the ADA, but we also have some things to work on. About 70 percent of people with disabilities cannot work due to a mixture of accessibility and discrimination problems. There’s still only a handful of accessible taxicabs in all the U.S. cities combined. Traveling by plane can be a huge risk if you want an undamaged wheelchair at the other end.
I understand that I represent only a segment of the disability population, which is diverse with invisible, sensorial, mental and other types of differences. My focus is often on physical accessibility, but the true roadblock is attitudes about awareness and inclusion.
In the case of my recent experience, a little bit of thought for inclusion would have made a huge difference. I will make a gentle suggestion for change in the future and offer myself as a resource. The world has opened up so much for people with disabilities in the last quarter of a century. I’ll help nudge it along in anyway way that I can.