Cheers for the Americans with Disabilities Act!

The Americans with Disabilities Act transformed a nation.

If ever a yearlong victory lap was in order, this is it.

The Americans With Disabilities Act became the law of the land on July 26, 1990. As the country celebrates the 25th anniversary of this monumental legislation, it’s fitting that we reflect on ways the ADA has enabled people with disabilities to participate more fully in the workforce and community life.

“I didn’t realize the ADA’s positive impact on my life until I entered college, 10 years after the ADA was signed,” said Lucia Rios, an accessibility specialist with the Disability Network/Lakeshore.

Lucia was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair or crutches to get around. Just 10 years old when the ADA became law, Lucia is among an estimated 55 million Americans with disabilities who enjoy greater opportunities for independence and engagement because of this quantum legislation.

“Because of the ADA,” Lucia said, “there was no question about attending a public and accessible university. When I joined the workforce four years later, I was hired by a company that made accommodations without hesitation.”

Having professional, full-time employment has made it possible for Lucia to provide for herself financially. She owns her own home and is active – really active -- in her community. In addition to her responsibilities at DNL, Lucia is a freelance writer and is currently finishing her first book.

Lucia said, that assured she could roll into higher education, employment, and an ascending career trajectory.

The ADA seeks to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in five key areas:

  •  Employment
  •  Government facilities and services
  • Public accommodations
  • Telecommunications
  • Transportation

The ADA requires accommodations to assure accessibility. These accommodations have become so commonplace that people with disabilities and their allies sometimes forget the quantum difference that eliminating physical barriers has made.

Here’s a short list of changes:

  • Designated parking
  • Ramps into public buildings
  • Curb cuts
  • Handicap accessible restrooms
  • Accessible public transportation options
  • Designated seating for people in wheelchairs at sporting events and in entertainment venues
  • Fire alarms that can be seen as well as heard

The bill, introduced in Congress in 1988, garnered bipartisan support on humanitarian grounds, but there was fierce opposition on cost.

The argument was that ADA-mandated changes might push small businesses out of business.

But the movement for disability rights surged in the wake of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. The public was recognizing the inherent fallacy of “separate but equal” facilities and services. There was a groundswell of acceptance that a more inclusive America would be a stronger America.

Advocacy from many quarters heightened public awareness, but one of the most passionate was Vice Chair of the National Council on Disability Justin Dart Jr., who traversed the nation in the 1980s to conduct public hearings to collect testimonies on disability-related discrimination.

The Disability Rights Movement found champions in the nation’s capitol among President George H.W. Bush and a cadre of lawmakers whose lives were personally impacted by disabilities.

Allies included Atty. General Richard Thornburg, whose son was left physically and mentally disabled as a result of an automobile accident, and California Rep. Tony Coelho, who had epilepsy. Advocates in the Senate included Tom Harkin of Iowa, whose brother was deaf; Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, whose son had a leg amputated, and Robert Dole of Kansas, who sustained lingering combat injuries during World War II.

To be sure, the ideals embodied in the ADA have not been fully realized. It remains a work in progress, yet the progress over the last 25 years is astounding.

In coming weeks, we’ll look at how the ADA has affected life for people with disabilities who live on the lakeshore in the five key areas. Add comments to this story to share your own “then-and-now” observations.

“I’m fortunate that my work allows me to take on an active role in helping eliminate physical and attitudinal barriers about people with disabilities,” Lucia Rios said. “I’ve met many individuals with disabilities who have kept jobs by asking for accommodations, accessed programs for transit or housing, and retained services for additional supports.

“The ADA enables people with disabilities to sustain independent living,” she added, “and contribute to their communities.“