Every year, 54 million adults in America can look forward to celebrating independence on July 26. This year marks the 27thAnniversary of the day President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal civil rights law that guarantees full inclusion for people with disabilities. It prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in all areas of public life, including employment, transportation and all public and private places that are open to the general public.
But wait, isn’t our national Independence Day July 4?
That depends on who you ask.
The ADA was modeled intentionally after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation act of 1973. The Civil Rights Act included all persons regardless of their race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Persons with disabilities, unfortunately, were not included in this list. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ensured nondiscrimination for persons with disabilities under federal grants and programs. Although this legislation was a step in the right direction toward a fully inclusive disability law, it was limited in scope.
Some 15 years later, what began as a proposal draft bill by The National Council on the Handicapped, now the National Council on Disability (NDC), entitled, “The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1988,” was presented to Congress. This would evolve into the final version signed in 1990. Historians have highlighted the fact that this was a bipartisan decision.
Disability itself is fully inclusive – it does not discriminate. 54 million may seem like a large number, until taking into account who falls under the definition of disability as defined by the ADA. Under the 2008 ADA Amendments Act, a “qualified” person with a disability is someone with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; a person who has a history or record of such an impairment; or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. The list of major life activities in the ADA is very broad, and not meant to be an exhaustive list.
For most of us, becoming a person with a disability is simply a matter of time. The Population Reference Bureau (PRB) shows that, as of 2014, the number of adults aged 65 and older with at least one basic action difficulty or complex activity limitation is 26.1 million, or 60.5 percent. In addition, older adults are working longer. The PRB states that, “By 2014, 23 percent of men and about 15 percent of women ages 65 and older were in the labor force, and these levels are projected to rise further by 2022, to 27 percent for men and 20 percent for women.” It is fair to assume that the number of persons with disabilities in the workplace will rise as well.
So, who needs the ADA?
Chances are, almost every person in America, at some point in their lives. Robert L. Burgdorf, Jr., NDC’s attorney during the drafting of the first version of the ADA, stated in an article commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the ADA, “Underlying the Court’s interpretation is a basic misconception that there are two distinct groups in society – those with disabilities and those without. People actually vary across a whole spectrum of infinitely small gradations of ability….and the importance of particular functional skills varies immensely according to the situation, and can be greatly affected by the availability or unavailability of accommodations and alternative methods of doing things.”
And what makes the ADA Anniversary “Independence Day?”
On an everyday level, because of the ADA, it is possible for people with disabilities to remain integrated in their communities, rather than being sent to homes or institutions that create separation and isolation. It means that a person who is a wheelchair user can ride the public bus to work (or have access to a parking space to fit their wheelchair-adapted van), have an accessible entrance to their workplace and have a work desk at a usable height. It means that someone who is blind can have their service dog lead them through a busy airport and even have an indoor relief spot available for their hard-working animal companion. It means that closed captioning is provided at a movie theater for the deaf or hard-of-hearing.
The short term for this is: Independence.
How can you honor, remember and renew your commitment to this crucial legislation that ensures non-discrimination against persons with disabilities and guarantees their inclusion?
- Educate yourself and others. Get to know available resources, such as the ADA National Network. The ADA National Network consists of 10 Regional Centers across the United States which provide technical assistance and training on the ADA and free webinars on various ADA-related topics. Visit gov, an on-line resource provided by the Department of Justice for more information on the ADA and read more about the history of the ADA and other disability rights laws.
- Speak up and get involved! Contact your local Center for Independent Living and find out ways you can become more involved in your community. Encourage employers to hire persons with disabilities.
For more ideas on how to celebrate the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, visit ADAanniversary.org, or use #ADA27 and #ADAanniversary. You can also follow the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center Anniversary 2017 theme, “Because of the ADA” on Facebook and on Twitter at #BecauseOfTheADA.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carleen R. Crespo lives in the Metro D.C. area. Originally a graduate of English and American Literature, she migrated to the field of disability rights. She has worked for TransCen, Inc./The Mid-Atlantic ADA Center since 2014 and is currently training to be a Technical Assistant, offering guidance specific to the ADA.