The Americans with Disabilities Act has become such an ingrained part of daily life that it’s sometimes hard to picture how things used to be — or why it took so long to change them.
“Many people now don’t even remember how it was before the ADA,” Lex Frieden, a disability rights activist who played a key role in crafting the landmark legislation, recently recalled, “but I can tell you from my own personal experience, there have been many, many changes, and it’s not just the number of accessible parking spaces you find in front of the drug store.”
The landscape was vastly different a generation ago. Most public places — restaurants, theaters, schools, government offices — made little or no effort to provide access to people with disabilities. The barriers extended to the workplace, where employers were free to deny jobs to applicants simply because of a disability.
That began to change 25 years ago this month when President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA, calling it “the world’s first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities.”
The ADA provided protections against discrimination in the workplace, ensured access to all of those public places, expanded access to transportation and broadened telephone services for individuals with speech or hearing problems. Today, the law affects 57.5 million Americans with disabilities, including 5.5 million military veterans, many of whom incurred their physical challenge serving their country.
As the July 26 anniversary of the act approaches, many disability rights leaders such as Frieden are reflecting on the impact of the law and the challenges that remain. At 9 a.m. on July 24, state Sen. Mike McGuire, State Department of Rehabilitation Director Joe Xavier and others will gather in Santa Rosa at the Justice Joseph A. Rattigan Building to celebrate the ADA and discuss its future.
As Bush predicted in 1990, the act has helped Americans with disabilities gain “independence, freedom of choice, control of their lives, the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream.”
But there’s still much to be done. Five years ago, Santa Rosa signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to bring public facilities in compliance with the ADA. More than $6 million has been spent so far on wheelchair ramps and other upgrades, but numerous projects remain unfinished.
“I think the public at large has gained a greater appreciation of what it means to be disabled,” Frieden says in an anniversary video produced by the ADA National Network, which oversees 10 regional centers across the United States that offer help to businesses, government agencies and people with disabilities in implementing the law. “In fact, more and more of us are becoming disabled [in] the Baby Boom generation. I think the impact of our aging demographic will play a great role in the future as we continue to work on implementing the ADA.”
The ADA remains a work in progress, here and across the country. The past 25 years, with tremendous changes in physical accommodations and public perception, demonstrate that the progress needs to continue.