Guest Post: The Americans with Disabilities Act Turns 21 (and is Ready to Party)

Cross-Posted at Tales of the Angry Negro (link below)

On April 26, 2001 we again celebrate the Anniversary of the Passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and pay deference to its younger brother – the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. The ADA is turning 21 this year and though less hoopla is being made now that the ADA is legal and ready to drink let us all take some time to remember the importance of the ADAto us all.

Any news outlets or historians that even bring up the ADA Anniversary will remind you of what the days prior to the ADA’s passing were like for individuals with disabilities. There will be the usual talk of access and general knowledge about disability – not to mention the usual parade of old White Guys claiming that they wrote, passed and sponsored the original legislation. That is not to say that the dark days prior to the ADA were not so dark — nor to insinuate that the passage of the ADA was not an event of which any participant should be proud. Indeed prior to the ADA’s passing the general public did not have many ideas about how disability should be addressed in public outside of some discussions regarding health care or government support services since they obviously were unable to hold down gainful employment. Additionally, the members of Congress who worked to pass the ADA faced a multitude of hurdles concerning the definition of disability – in addition to the stratification of the disability community itself.  It was no easy feat, and we as the American people owe each of those persons (including Jesse Helms) a debt for their service to our country.

I doubt that the anniversary of the ADA will make the top news story as it will likely be shoved beneath the death of Amy Winehouse, the latest interview with Jaycee Dugard, and appropriately the confession of the bomber inOslo. Though it may not garner that much press and attention, the ADA is one of the most important pieces of legislation that has been passed by Congress.

The ADA’s importance is not due to any sort of happy warm glittery feeling in the pit of your stomach for providing for the less fortunate. Many people who will be talking about the ADA will do so in the form of pity. “Isn’t it great that our country created a law to help those poor cripples, and they are SO grateful for this opportunity we wish to give them.” Conversely the ADA’s importance is also not illustrated by certain members of the disability community either. The ADA does not represent the New Testament from the Lord Our God – nor does it represent the end-all be all to the way that disability is addressed in our country. It does not mean that anyone who did not work on the ADA suddenly has nothing else beneficial to add to the conversation.

The best part of the Americans with Disabilities Act is not found in its sentiment, or solely in the hearts of the people who worked on it. The beauty of the ADA is its level of inclusion. The ADA provides a protection for All Americans regardless of race, age, gender, or disability from discrimination for public services. The definition that the ADA uses (which has been fortified by the ADA Amendments Act,) allows for the protection of Americans whether they have disabilities, or are perceived as having a disability. Those protections even exist even if the person doesn’t consider them selves a “disabled person,” but understands that their disability nonetheless affects the manner in which they live their lives. The ADA has similarities in the greatest Civil Rights legislation that we have passed in theUnited States– including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which exists as the basis for our modern ideas about race and equality in theUnited States. The ADA remained ahead of its time, providing protections for individuals with HIV/AIDS before passing of landmark legislation like the Ryan White Care Act.

Like all movements to makeAmericamore equitable theADAhas done its time sitting at the vanguard of the movement for equality in theUnited States. You see children, “equality” or the semblance thereof is not something that we can often legislate. It has to be done in pieces. If we walk ourselves backward, we can see that there would have been no ADA without the Latino’s Workers Rights movements  (feat. Cesar Chavez), none of that without Women’s Rights, leading back to the Black Civil Rights movement, before is cycles back to immigration rights, suffrage, and abolitionism (again.) Moving forward the ADA will be (and has been) the basis for future legislation providing equality for our budding communities looking for equality – be it immigrant groups, the LGBT community or any new group of Americans seeking their part of the American experience. Like the best forms of change, the generations born after the ADA will have no concept of the inequalities that preceded it – thereby making an integral shift in the cultural make-up of our society. The ADA is but one of the cogs in the machine that we must continue to build, service, maintain, lubricate and replace to not only keep our country running but also ensure that it turns out being a place where we wish to be.

So on July 26th I do not consider the triumph of the disability community, but the continued tradition of American’s rising to the challenge to make our Nation a better place. Contrary to popular belief there is still a significant amount of work to be done even in post ADA-America. Though some general ideas of access have made it into mainstream society, we are nowhere near the high standard of inclusion of which the ADA challenges us. There is still significant room for full inclusion of the ADA spirit at the state and local levels, as well as digital access, breaking the barriers of access for individuals with disabilities on the Internet and in the digital world. This does not mean that the ADA Anniversary is a failure, rather a reminder of the compact that we have made with America and a challenge to continue answering the call to make our way of life accessible for All Americans.

Happy ADA Day!

 Patrick Cokley is a disability advocate based in Washington, DC who is excited that the ADA is now legal. For more of his acerbic wit, visit his blog, Tales of the Angry Negro at talesoftheangrynegro.wordpress.com.