Twenty-five years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act began to transform the lives of millions and the minds of millions more
May 3, 2015 12:00 AM
By Dick Thornburgh
On July 26, 1990, I joined more than 3,000 others on the sun-drenched White House lawn to witness President George H.W. Bush’s signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was a day of optimism and hope and cheers when President Bush said, “Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”
That glorious day particularly resonated with me. My son Peter became disabled at the age of 4 months in an automobile accident. Through him I knew firsthand the issues confronting persons with disabilities and their families. As U.S. attorney general I knew that my ADA work was only beginning.
At the Department of Justice, we issued comprehensive ADA regulations and technical-assistance documents in record time — one year. We undertook a comprehensive enforcement program and employed the ADA’s powers vigorously, getting systemic relief in cases of nationwide significance, concentrating on fundamental issues and avoiding frivolous matters. We helped businesses and state and local governments understand the new law and provided advice on how to comply voluntarily. We provided relief for persons with disabilities while building public support for the ADA.
Twenty-five years later, how have we done?
In my estimation, the ADA has transformed American life, opening everyday opportunities for persons with disabilities while ushering in an era of independence, dignity and choice for more than 54 million Americans with disabilities.
The changes are all around us. Look at our built environment. Our town halls, sports stadiums, movie theaters, chain restaurants, courtrooms, hotels, shopping malls, museums, colleges, polling places, even our prisons and jails, are being made accessible.
Our transportation systems have been transformed. Virtually all city bus systems are now accessible and curb cuts are commonplace. We have accessible subway and intercity rail systems and standards for over-the-road buses that make nationwide travel accessible. Hotel and airport shuttle systems are adding accessible vehicles and cities are beginning to require accessible taxis in their local fleets.
In education, the concept that every child, no matter how severe his or her disability, is entitled to an appropriate education and can benefit from educational services is a bedrock, accepted principle. Every public elementary and secondary school in our country is required to provide additional educational programming at public expense for children with disabilities.
In health care, sign language interpreters are being provided in hospital and doctor’s offices, and new hospital design, including wheelchair accessible, in-room toilet facilities, is making hospital stays more welcoming for patients and visitors with disabilities.
We are also seeing a revolution in accessible information technology and telecommunications. Our telephone system, once an insurmountable barrier to persons who are deaf, is fully accessible through the Telephone Relay and Video Relay systems. We now recognize that we have to make our websites, online learning systems, e-readers and new information technology accessible to persons who are blind or have low vision.
Some of our greatest strides are being made under the landmark Olmstead Supreme Court case, which recognized that the unjustified segregation of persons with disabilities constitutes discrimination in violation of the ADA. More and more people with disabilities are now living in their local neighborhoods, receiving support services that foster independence and integration.
Perhaps the most satisfying change the ADA has brought about is a change in attitude. As new generations of Americans have worked, lived and played side-by-side with persons with disabilities, the debilitating barriers of stereotypes and prejudices are disappearing. Participation in everyday American life has brought a sense of self-worth for persons with disabilities.
This is not to say that these changes have happened overnight or that they were easy. Nor is it to say that the job is complete. We have unfinished ADA business.
The lack of employment opportunities for persons with disabilities has been a major disappointment. Our expanding information economy and new digital devices have too often advanced without including persons with disabilities. Too many children with disabilities are not receiving appropriate educational or transitional services and are landing in our juvenile justice system. We have not adequately met the needs of our wounded warriors who have come back home to face joblessness, poverty and lack of services. And the needs of persons with psychiatric disabilities, including children with emotional issues, often remain unmet.
But I am proud that America’s ADA has sparked a worldwide recognition of the rights and needs of our planet’s more than 1 billion persons with disabilities.
The United Nations took the nondiscrimination principles of the ADA and incorporated them into a forward-reaching treaty, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This convention has been ratified by 154 countries, but, sadly, not yet by the United States.
The United States Senate would be well-advised to take up this treaty and ratify it and allow the United States to maintain its worldwide leadership role on disability rights. We pioneered disability rights; it is time for us to share our expertise with all the nations of the world.
Despite this unfinished business, the ADA at 25 is more than just a good beginning; it’s a new day for persons with disabilities and a new day for our country.
Dick Thornburgh, a former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. attorney general, is of counsel for K&L Gates law firm. He will be honored for his role in advancing the ADA by the National Council on Disability at its quarterly meeting Monday and Tuesday at the University of Pittsburgh’s William Pitt Union. For more information: www.ncd.gov/events.
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