July 22, 2004
July 26 is a day of celebration for people with disabilities. It is the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a law passed 14 years ago that granted civil disability rights to the 54 million Americans with disabilities.
The ADA has altered the American landscape in a way that was unimaginable 20 years ago. The most significant piece of civil-rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADA prohibits discrimination and mandates equal opportunity for people with disabilities in employment, transportation, telecommunications and public accommodations.
Still in its adolescence, the law has promoted the integration of people with disabilities into all aspects of community life. Before, the less people with disabilities were seen, the more they were assumed to be both unable and unwilling to participate fully in society. Today, it should be clear to all that people with disabilities can pursue active and productive lives.
The biggest successes of the ADA have been to remove structural barriers that have literally shut out many people. Consider these now ubiquitous features: sidewalk curb cuts, bathroom grab bars, disabled parking spaces that accommodate vans with wheelchair ramps, lifts into swimming pools and onto stages, ramps alongside stairs, Braille elevator buttons, chirping traffic lights.
Accessible communication mechanisms are also more readily available: TTY telephones and relay systems, sign-language interpreters at public events, audiotapes, closed captioning and other alternative formats at conferences and meetings.
The accessibility of buildings and employment and education opportunities are meaningless if people with disabilities have no way to reach their destinations.
Rosa Parks made riding in the front of a bus a symbol of racial justice. Prior to the passage of the ADA, people with disabilities all too often couldn't get on a bus or subway at all. Public transportation access was so uneven that it was simply not a viable way to get around. Now, most bus systems are equipped with lifts and ramps, as well as with ADA-compliant communication systems for riders with vision and hearing disabilities.
Perhaps the most basic, yet profound impact of the ADA has been the gradual reversal of a shameful history of unnecessary warehousing of people with disabilities in large, state-operated institutions. The 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Olmstead v. L.C. has spawned a national examination of the extreme harm caused by institutionalization, which radically constrains the social lives, work options and independence of people with disabilities.
Unfortunately, the contributions of the ADA are increasingly under attack. Several recent Supreme Court decisions have narrowed the range of people who are covered by the ADA and have threatened the fundamental civil rights underpinnings of the act.
Congress intended the Americans with Disabilities Act to put an end to discrimination. It was drafted as a civil-rights statute, a break from pity to independence.
The work has begun, promisingly, but much more remains to be done. The progress the disability-rights movement has forged -- and continues to struggle for -- is in keeping with the most fundamental principles of equality embodied in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
When all African-Americans were finally able to vote, the country benefited from a more participatory democracy. Like universal suffrage and the end to Jim Crow, the changes wrought by the ADA make common sense -- not just for people with disabilities but for everyone.
Julia Epstein, Arlene B. Mayerson and Silvia Yee work with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) based in Berkeley, Calif. (www.dredf.org). Julia Epstein is director of communications, Arlene B. Mayerson is directing attorney and Silvia Yee is staff attorney. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.