I am still thinking about what a great time I had, along with so many others, at the ADA 20th Anniversary celebration on July 26. It was a beautiful day at the Nicollet Island Pavilion, and being close to the river made it very cool and comfortable. The Minnesota weather couldn’t have been kinder to us.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been a great success in civil rights law. To think that less than 20 years ago, curb cuts were uncommon and very few transportation opportunities were available for people using wheelchairs and other mobility devices. In 1990, “reasonable accommodation” was not a term that people in general understood.
Not to date myself, but I remember going to the mall and not being able to get to the second floor without going outside and up the hill where the second-floor entrances were. It’s only in the last 10-15 years that I didn’t have to plan, half a block ahead, where to get up on a sidewalk. Even then, I’d often find myself blocked with no curb cuts ahead.
I remember starting college without the school or my instructors having any idea what I would need to be able to attend classes, take notes, write papers or complete tests. (Actually, I wasn’t exactly sure what I would need to be successful either.) Disability services offices were just starting to pop up on college campuses, and they were usually very understaffed. I remember feeling very awkward when classes had to be moved to a different building because the classroom that was initially designated for my class was not accessible. And more than once, I’d have classes in classrooms where the only place I could park my wheelchair was in the doorway. Many of these are not concerns today, even though there are new concerns for students with disabilities.
I’ll never forget those uncomfortable feelings, the sense that I was a burden to the more “worthy” students. I could be confident in other situations, but on a college campus, I fell into the trap of self-discrimination and learned helplessness. This is just one area where the ADA has afforded us some real change and opportunity. The ADA has allowed people with disabilities to recognize their own rights, giving us the power to reject those awkward feelings—and not to feel them in the first place. I know many of you know exactly what I’m talk about. Some of you were in those classrooms with me, juggling who would park where.
Whether in a classroom, a restaurant, a store, on the streets, or in your own homes, many of you know exactly this feeling of inadequacy—whether you’re developmentally disabled, physically disabled or live with any of a number of other disabilities that put barriers between us and success.
We have come a long way. And still, we have a long way to go. Transitional services from one educational level to the next are still not up to any solid standards. Even with an education, job opportunities remain very slim for most people with disabilities. We have fairly accessible transportation, but transportation is still a major problem in employment. Recently, we’ve heard stories of bus drivers not stopping at bus stops for people using wheelchairs because it takes too much time. Also, the personal care attendant program has many hurdles to jump for a person with a disability to maintain a job. No employer wants to hear; “the bus wouldn’t stop” or “my PCA was late and that’s why I’m late.” No employer should feel obligated to keep someone employed who has these problems, but no employee should have to be at a disadvantage for their lack of ability to control outside resources. Thanks to the ADA for opening employers’ minds and improving public understanding!
We still have barriers, and battles to fight. One small example that kept coming up in press coverage of the ADA is the need for people to generally adopt “people-first” language. Too many times, we were still described as “handicapped” or “disabled” people. Language in many ways defines who a person is, and it’s just common courtesy to recognize a person before you characterize a person. We are people: people with disabilities, yes, but also people with abilities, with genius, with creativity, with courage, with concerns, with humanity and dignity.
The expected budget cuts facing our state will probably not reduce the number of challenges we face; they will probably increase them. The population of people with disabilities and with needs for support is growing. I don’t know what the answers are, but I do know that we can’t afford to waste the skills of any of our citizens or waste our resources on any of our citizens. Let’s remind people with legislative responsibilities that all Minnesotans need to live independent, productive lives, and that the state needs to help ensure that each citizen is as successful in life as they strive to be.