I am a big fan of the Americans with Disabilities Act for a couple of reasons. The first is pretty obvious. It is a law that “levels the playing field’ for people with disabilities in several areas of our lives. The second reason is one that not too many people think about.
People with disabilities comprise the largest minority group in this country. The thing is, we all have different needs. As a wheelchair user, in order to access a restaurant, I need an accessible entrance and wide aisles and doorways to be able to navigate to a table and to get into the bathroom. My needs are always going to be different from people who are blind or people who are deaf or those affected by a learning disability. In terms of advocacy, I am more likely to focus my attention on a restaurant getting a ramp so that I can get in rather than the fact that they should also have Braille menus because the ramp is what personally affects my life; even though I would be quick to say that both of those accommodations are equally important. I think it is part of the human condition that we tend to spend time and energy on those issues that affect us personally.
The second reason that I am a big fan of the ADA is this. The goal of getting the Americans with Disabilities Act passed was one of the few times in history when people with disabilities, from all walks of life and with a diverse array of needs came together in solidarity. They had all experienced the pain of discrimination at some point in their lives. They had one goal. They knew that the passage of the ADA would be a positive outcome for everyone.
According to the book “No Pity,” by Joseph Shapiro, the first version of the Americans with Disabilities Act was written by Robert L. Burgdorf, an attorney who had polio as a child. As a result, his right arm was paralyzed. When he was a young man, his disability prevented him from following in his father’s footsteps and becoming an electrician. Justin Dart’s efforts largely helped the ADA get passed. Dart was the chairman of the EEOC at the time. Polio rendered him a quadriplegic at the age of 18. Senator Tom Harkin first sponsored the bill in Congress, had a brother who was deaf. When giving testimony in support of the bill, Harkin did so in part using sign language, as a tribute to his brother Frank, he said, who “taught him at a very early age that people with disabilities could do anything that they set their minds to.” Senator Harkin called the ADA the “Emancipation Proclamation of the twentieth century for people with disabilities.” Even George H.W. Bush who signed the bill into law while he was president, on July 26th, 1990, had a daughter who died of leukemia, a son with learning disabilities and another son with severe Crohn’s disease. Everyone in this country is affected by disability somehow.
Why have I been thinking of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act so much in the last few days? Because in response to the pandemic of the Coronavirus that has caused so much fear and anxiety recently, I think the response of the people in this country needs to be the same as it was among all kinds of people with disabilities in the late 1980s and the early part of 1990. I think we all need to come together in solidarity and unite for a common goal. To slow the spread of the Coronavirus and contain it as much as possible.
If this virus spreads out of control, lots of people will die needlessly. I am not just talking about the people who are in the at-risk group not responding well if they contract the virus itself. I am also talking about people who have heart attacks or strokes or people who are injured in accidents and all kinds of others. If our healthcare system is overwhelmed with people who have the Coronavirus, there won’t be room for anyone who needs the resources of a hospital for any other reason. Therefore, I think it is up to each one of us to do everything we can to slow the spread of this virus as much as it is within our power to do so. So, even though I know everyone has heard these guidelines numerous times over the last several weeks, please wash your hands often. Practice social distancing in public. Stay home more often than you want to. All of that is both necessary and temporary.
Everyone is affected by this pandemic. A positive outcome would be good for all of us.
Be well, everyone!