Americans with Disabilities Act turns 25

Signed into law on July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turns 25 today. Having become disabled just a couple of years before the ADA, it got me to thinking about how things have changed for my cohort in a quarter of a century. We’ve come a long way since then but still have a way to go.

Coincidentally, I was reading chapter 53 of A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire) today and seeing correlations with how things have changed in the USA. The chapter is about Bran, who became paraplegic from a spinal cord injury. Although it’s not as accessible to him as it was before he became paralyzed, Bran has been able to get out and around Winterfell because of a number of accommodations. In this chapter, Bran rises to the level of lord in Winterfell. Yet when he hosted a feast for Lord Karstark, Bran overheard one of Karstark’s sons saying “…sooner die than live like that” and the other referring to him as “broken inside as well as out”: Bran the Broken.

Of course, that was all fiction but there’s truth within George R.R. Martin‘s musings. I have written about how accessible the National Park Service has made Yosemite, a place you would think of as very inaccessible. There are countless other cases that I haven’t written about in which public facilities and services have become more accessible to persons with a disability thanks to the ADA. I’ve even seen private businesses making increasing accommodations to patrons with a disability in recent years, with the greatest strides seen in communities like Irvine, California, that actively seek out ways to increase access for residents with a disability. Due in part to regulations enacted in 2010, the ADA has helped usher in an age of accessible design in America.

But there’s one place where the ADA, which is supposed to prohibit discrimination and ensure equal opportunity for persons with a disability, has fallen short—in regards to discrimination. As other civil rights movements have discovered, you can’t legislate discrimination away. In 2014, only seventeen percent of  Americans with a disability were employed (compared to 64.6% of those without). Most people with a visible disability can tell anecdotes about when people talk to their companion regarding the person with the disability, even though they’re right there together and could answer for him or herself. While many Americans are enlightened about the capabilities of persons with a disability, too many still discriminate against them based on misconceptions and ignorance of what a person with a disability can accomplish. Does anyone remember that president Franklin D. Roosevelt had polio?

The only way to overcome discrimination is to raise awareness about persons with a disability. Recognizing the 25th anniversary of the ADA is one way to do that. Although I would never advocate intentionally doing so, becoming disabled yourself is another way—and it could happen to any of us. Just over 1 in 4 of today’s 20 year-olds will become disabled before they retire. If you don’t have a friend or family member with a disability, don’t be afraid to speak with someone with a disability you happen to meet about what they are capable of and what they’ve accomplished. Most are willing to speak candidly on the topic and you’re certain to be surprised by the stories you hear.

It would be interesting to see what America will be like for persons with a disability in another 25 years. I will not likely be around in 2040 to see it. But I hope those Americans who will be will see even more advancements in the next quarter of a century than in the last.

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