We’re 20 Percent of America, and We’re Still InvisibleBreaking News
tags: disability, Americans with Disabilities Act
This month as the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act approached, we asked two prominent figures in the disability rights movement, Judy Heumann and John Wodatch, where they thought the United States stood in its quest to secure full rights for people with disabilities.
Mr. Wodatch is a former Department of Justice lawyer and the chief author of the regulations of both the A.D.A. and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, an anti-discrimination law that was a precursor to the A.D.A. He led the Justice Department office in charge of enforcing the A.D.A. until 2010. Ms. Heumann, an international disability rights activist, was the leader of the “504 sit-in” in San Francisco in 1977, at 25 days the longest nonviolent occupation of a federal building in American history. Ms. Heumann’s role in that protest has been documented in the recently released film “Crip Camp” and her memoir, “Being Heumann.”
On July 26, 1990, President George Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act into law. Like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the A.D.A. was watershed legislation, the culmination of a decades-long campaign of organized protest and activism. It, too, was a victory in the struggle for equality for a group of people who had been systematically denied basic rights and access to public spaces and services. On the 30th anniversary of the law, it’s only natural to want to celebrate. And we should.
Yet just as many of the injustices that the Civil Rights Act aimed to eliminate are still very much with us, and still being resisted, the full promise of the Americans With Disabilities Act has yet to be realized. We are not yet where we need to be.
To begin to understand why, it’s important to acknowledge where we started. Our nation’s disability history is daunting. Every single state has at some point enforced legalized segregation of persons with disabilities; disabled children were excluded from public schools; people with only minor disabling conditions were routinely shut away for life in custodial institutions; and states prohibited marriage between disabled people and forced them to be sterilized.
Revelations about the brutal conditions at institutions like the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island in the early 1970s shocked the public. They led to a 1975 federal court settlement intended to move Willowbrook’s residents into their own homes in the community and prompted similar actions against other institutions.
During our lifetimes (we are both in our 70s) we’ve seen children with disabilities be denied education; we’ve been in cities that still had “ugly laws” that forbade disabled people to appear in public because their appearance was considered offensive. We came of age in a society rife with discrimination, with few accessible buildings, almost no public accessible restrooms, limited employment opportunities for people with all types of disabilities, and little usable public transportation.
Today, 30 years after the passage of the A.D.A., and after a series of other disability rights laws — Section 504, the Fair Housing Act, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act among them — this picture has changed radically. The arc of the moral universe, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, is indeed bending toward justice. But he also said that arc is long.
One of the most profound outcomes of the passage of the A.D.A. has been the gain of dignity and self-worth for disabled persons. The law not only made our world more physically accessible, it confirmed our belief in ourselves, our knowledge that we have the same rights as all others, including the right to pursue and have access to a full life in its broadest sense. It has also empowered a new generation of disabled people. We are on our way to leaving behind the days of shame — when one of our greatest presidents felt he had to hide his disability — to the open and proud embrace of disability and disability culture.