This past Sunday, July 26, marked the 30th anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Signed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, the ADA as it’s colloquially known essentially is the Civil Rights Act for people with disabilities.
The landmark piece of legislation was pioneered and written by former congressman Tony Coelho, a Democrat from California. Coelho is disabled himself—in a May interview with me, he shared the impetus for creating the bill stemmed from discrimination and ridicule over his epilepsy diagnosis.
His parents kept his diagnosis a secret from him until later in life, and he was disqualified from seminary because Canon Law (and his parents) saw his condition as a sign he was possessed by the devil.
“After a significant struggle, I finally got my life back together and surrounded myself with friends who advised me to go into politics and use my disability for good,” he said.
Besides creating the ADA, Coelho also co-founded (and is a board member of) the American Association of People with Disabilities. Founded in 1995, the non-profit organization’s mission is to act as a “convener, connector, and catalyst for change, increasing the political and economic power of people with disabilities.”
The goal is to give the over 60 million disabled American adults a more amplified sociocultural voice in terms of economic power and political participation. The AAPD even has a scholarship named in Coelho’s honour, awarded to people who pursue journalism and related careers.
“Right now, we’re working to create a paradigm shift in America—encouraging individuals and communities to celebrate disabilities, rather than hide them,” said Maria Town, CEO and President of the AAPD, in a recent interview. Town assumed the organization’s top perch in 2019.
Reflecting upon three decades of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Town put its historical significance into context. She noted that, prior to the ADA’s passage, a comprehensive set of protections for people with disabilities in the United States didn’t exist. “The ADA finally prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunication,” she said.
“With the ADA signed, the landscape of our nation began to change. We began to see things we now take for granted: curb cuts, elevators, accessible entrances and bathrooms, just to name a few. Community spaces like movie theatres and parks became accessible.”
For as transformative as the ADA was, however, there remains much work to be done.
As the country has seen with the May killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, discrimination and racism persist regardless of the presence of laws like the Civil Rights Act.
Disability discrimination and ableism is no different, which is why advocacy groups like the AAPD and activists such as Haben Girma work so tirelessly to champion our cause. The astounding progress made in the last thirty years is worthy of celebration, but the work is evergreen. Town cited the dearth of disability representation in Hollywood and in the media as areas that need dramatic overhauls when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
“Today, we are fortunate enough to celebrate the many diverse cultures and identities, but many of the dominant narratives about disability still focus on disability as something to be overcome or cured or even something to inspire non-disabled people,” Town said.
“Society needs a paradigm shift—instead of trying to erase our disabilities, we must accept and celebrate disability as an identity.”
The coronavirus pandemic is a topic that exposes society’s—and the mainstream media’s—biases against disabled people. Advocacy and coverage of the plight of disabled people during the crisis, relative to other groups, has been comparatively sparse. Town told me the virus has exposed severe kinks not only in the American healthcare machine but also how much public infrastructure is relied upon by people with disabilities.
Service reductions to public transit, for example, limits how easily and accessibly a blind person or wheelchair user can get around. Likewise, grocery shopping can be dangerous for many with certain disabilities, and on-demand food delivery services such as Uber Eats can be cost-prohibitive.
“Covid-19, like many crises, has highlighted how progress in disability rights is tied to progress for all other marginalized communities,“ Town said. “For some members of the disability community, receiving information can be harder for people with visual, aural and cognitive disabilities, as popular news sources may not be fully accessible, especially when information is changing so quickly.”
She added: “[The AAPD] lead discussions about the unique opportunity for society to learn from the disability community during this crisis, and a shared responsibility to ensure that recovery from this virus is equitable and accessible to all.”