Every year I celebrate. This day fills my heart with a mixture of gratitude, awe, and not entirely inexplicable pride. It’s not my birthday or a date when I accomplished anything impressive individually. But it is a day that holds considerable significance to me. Why? This is the day that a president said that I not only have a place in the world, but I also have protection from people who don’t think I have a right to it. On July 26, 1990, George Bush Sr. signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. Right after he signed he said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”
Obviously, I like this law. The reason I support it is that, in my opinion, it brings people together in various ways. For a long time before the ADA, people with disabilities were split into various disability groups. People that were blind advocated for street lights that made noise when they changed so that they could cross the street safely. People who used wheelchairs advocated for wider parking spaces and accessible transportation. Working on passing the ADA was one of the few times people who had all kinds of disabilities came together to advocate with a common goal. Equal access for everyone, regardless of disability.
I remember well the days when my dad had to carry me up or downstairs if we wanted to see a concert, movie, or sports event. On many occasions, our plans had to be changed at the last minute because the venue wouldn’t work for me Although I knew it wasn’t personal, being literally “left out” like that was the loneliest feelings I have ever known.
I had just graduated from college when the ADA was passed and wanted to find a job based on my abilities. I wanted to find an employer who thought I would be an asset to the organization. I didn’t want my disability to get in the way. The ADA supports that. The Americans with Disabilities Act does not say that companies must hire people with disabilities. Instead, it states that if there are two candidates who are equally qualified for a job, the employer cannot refuse to hire the one with the disability because of the disability. That is, an employer cannot refuse to hire that person because he or she thinks that their insurance rates might go up or that this particular candidate might take too many sick days.
Like all young people, in those days, I wanted to go where I wanted to go without my disability being an issue. The ADA supports that as well. The Americans with Disabilities Act does not say that all public places have to be accessible. Instead, it says that all public places have to be accessible where it is “readily achievable” to do so. That term is defined as “without undue burden or financial hardship”. That means, for example, that if making a business accessible would cost that business $10,000, and they can prove that they only made a profit of $15,000 in a year, they do not have to make the accommodation.
These days, when I go to dinner with friends, we get to be together in ways that would have been impossible thirty years ago. We seldom worry if the doorway will be wide enough or the bathroom stall big enough to accommodate my wheelchair. Finding parking is not a problem, and whether a ramp is present to give me access is not a real concern. To me, those things being almost irrelevant to me mean that society has come a long way. Inclusion is the norm, not the exception. Today there is a generation of people who believe that is just the way it is.
Several weeks ago this country celebrated its freedom. We celebrated for this reason. More than 235 years ago, congress adopted a document that stated that “All men are created equal…and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But I also think of July 26th as ” Independence Day!”