We celebrate the anniversary but also await the promises of the ADA

On July 26 we celebrate 34 years since the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Access Press was […]

Outline of a person in a chair with an American flag filled in the wheel

On July 26 we celebrate 34 years since the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Access Press was founded that same year, in response to a need to ensure for our community news they need to live and work independently.

In looking backward, it is important to look ahead. Today, it is estimated that 44 percent of the population is under the age of 35. That means that nearly half of all Americans have always lived with the ADA in place. Everyone benefits with inclusion. This hit me in the face last summer when I joined the Board of Access Press and served as chair for our 2023 Access Press Awards event.

A journalism student, Lucy Zhao, volunteered to work on the event. Lucy still had to go through an interview. I didn’t know if Lucy has a disability. Because of the ADA, I focus on what individuals can bring to us and how they can be a part of our team. But we are Access Press, so I did ask about her experience with disability. She blew me away because she lives in a world where difference is the norm and diversity is valued.

Among other experiences, she spoke about her early years as an English language learner, what it meant then and how it affects her now. Each of us has our own life experience that makes us unique. It mirrored my own experience with language delays, and I was sold.

This is a far cry from the experience of the other half of us who grew up in a world of imposed norms, a world of sameness. In the 1950s and 1960s, to fit in meant to conform. Being different often meant not being included. If you were different and it did not show, you often hid that difference. My generation did not have the benefit of living and working comfortably with diversity. We did not have the ability to celebrate difference. We did not have the guaranteed protection of civil rights laws, including the ADA.

More people became educated with the passage of the ADA, learning how to hire people based on meaningful criteria, even learning how to interact with people who do things differently and sometimes better. Necessity is the mother of invention and many people figured out individual accommodations for individual needs. And then there were examples where a perceived disability proved to be an asset, such as an employee with autism who excelled at working with details.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 had already prohibited discrimination of people with disabilities by any organization receiving federal funds, including many public employers and educational institutions. In 1986, the National Council on the Handicapped, now called the National Council on Disability, recommended enactment of a comprehensive equal opportunity law, maybe calling it the Americans with Disabilities Act. This came to fruition through involvement of a huge cast of characters from both parties, including Sen. David Durenberger of Minnesota and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. The support was overwhelming, and the act was signed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. In 2008, the ADA Amendments Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

The ADA came at a time when collaboration and negotiation was more the political norm. It seems to be the exception now. Governing has become a game of tug of war with a winner-take-all outcome. The idea of a representative democracy seems too often to be threatened, with pressure on politicians to support a national agenda decided by a few, rather than representing the very people who elected them. It seems unlikely that the ADA would be enacted today, but progress is not linear. There are actions and reactions, and while progress is not uniform, we do move forward over time.

I am optimistic about our future because of Lucy, and many others like her, who will work toward a better future for themselves and the generations to follow. We still have a big job to do.

Jane Larson serves as Board President for Access Press.

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