The American Disabilities Act was adopted 30 years ago this month resulting in more inclusion of people with disabilities in society as the landmark legislation facilitated their exit from the shadows of isolation and exclusion into the sunlight of public and community life.
July 26 marks the 30th anniversary of a dream that became the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the ADA. In 1986, as members of the National Council on the Handicapped (now the National Council on Disability), we were prompted by the late Justin Dart Jr., vice chair of the council who became known as the “father of the ADA,” to examine ways to improve the lives of all Americans with disabilities.
Because the public had very limited experience interacting with children and adults with disabilities, they were still considered an “under class.” Instead of focusing on their talents, skills, strengths and potential or real contributions to society, the public’s attention was on the disability. Often this translated into “dependent” and “helpless.” The council asked: How can we shift the public’s perception from a focus on an individual’s disability to a perception of the individual’s abilities?
Members of the council agreed that we needed to “change the culture” so that people with disabilities are accepted as equal members of our society. It was decided that we needed to write legislation which provides stronger language to protect their civil rights against discrimination and a bill that will transform their living environment so that it is more accessible, allowing people with disabilities to live more openly and actively among us in school, work and the community. We speculated that the increased public, private and social interaction will increase understanding, friendships and inclusion. These outcomes would eventually reduce discrimination.
The first draft of the ADA was written by select members of the national council during a period from 1986 to 1988. During that period, we were working closely with leaders in the disability community, Vice President George H.W. Bush and many members of Congress, including Sens. Bob Dole and Ted Kennedy. The original draft of the ADA was submitted to Congress in 1988 and was further modified to be acceptable to the disability community and to Congressional leaders. After it was signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, physical barriers in all critical areas of life activities were slowly being eliminated throughout our nation, allowing people with disabilities to access schools, physician offices, places of employment, recreational facilities, public transportation and even sidewalks with curb-cuts. Employers provided special accommodations so that their workplaces were accessible to their employees with disabilities.
Our vision that these transformational environmental changes would lead to greater acceptance of people with disabilities by the public at large was not immediately realized. But during the past 30 years, we have witnessed notable strides in the inclusion of people with disabilities because the ADA facilitated their exit from the shadows of isolation and exclusion into the sunlight of public and community life. By studying, traveling, and working side by side with people with disabilities, discrimination and bias have diminished. We are interacting more and more with people with disabilities on a personal basis.
The eventual goal is to dispense with the term “disability” as a descriptor of human character to be replaced by a focus on the person’s abilities, strengths and talents. The lesson learned is that private thoughts and biases cannot be legislated out of existence. But the guarantee of each person’s civil rights, a national program of public education against bias and discrimination, and increasing opportunities for people with disabilities to live as Americans side by side with each of us in the community will lead to an inclusive society.