by Anthony Corona
1990: It was a year that changed the world in so many ways. The Soviet Union began to fall, East and West Germany re-united, Iraq invaded Kuwait, Margaret Thatcher stepped down as British Prime Minister and Madonna dominated the globe on her Blonde Ambition tour and was banned from MTV for “Justifying Her Love.” That is not all that changed the world in the first year of the last decade of the millennium. In the United States, a movement that had been building for years finally took legislative shape: the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law on July 26th! It was monumental in scope and the promise it made to Americans who were living with a disability. There are five titles to this sweeping legislation that aimed to level the playing field for people who until this point had little in legal precedent to act on or demand rights that should have been a given.
In this article I strive to celebrate the promises achieved from the ADA as well as the areas still requiring a high level of advocacy. Here I look at three areas before the ADA and where we are now.
In the mid-’90s, ACB’s executive director Eric Bridges was making his way through high school with rapidly diminishing vision. He was a hard-working student who was then faced with the challenges of learning skills that would allow him to continue living in the world and finish his education. The school district where he went to school, however, decided it would be better for him (or so they said) to be placed in a school for the blind. Lawyers and many mediations later, he and his parents would emerge victorious in the efforts to display that Eric would not only be able to learn the skills he needed while receiving traditional education but that he could thrive. The ADA was not a signed act yet and there weren’t any protections for him and his parents to call on. Those types of decisions were left up to each individual school district to determine. Fast forward a few years later to an esteemed university and a newly passed ADA and Eric found himself advocating for himself again when the large university’s two braille embossers were both on the fritz. Eric states that because of protections guaranteeing equal access to information, services, activities, and facilities, his efforts were significantly reduced this time around. So in just a few short years the ADA was already having a significant change in the arena of education. Good news, right? He thought so.
Thirty years later, as he recounts his first real interactions with the ADA, Eric cannot help but to feel the full circle feeling as he currently is calling on provisions within the ADA in a new education situation. Months ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic swept into the U.S., schools rapidly closed and a virtual learning model was quickly adopted in many school districts, including his son Tyler’s school. Parents who just days or weeks before were comfortable in the knowledge that their child was receiving a rich and structured robust education in a physical classroom setting were now thrust into the role of teacher! Eric and his wife are both highly educated professionals who should not have a problem taking on the roles of temporary teachers, right? Not so fast; the online education portals used in their district aren’t accessible to blind parents. So almost 30 years later he finds himself reaching back into his advocacy vault to require digital accessibility for the materials he needs to be able to use to teach his son.
In the education arena the ADA has served our community well in many ways. But any student or parent with a visual impairment will tell you there is still so much more to accomplish. The protections in place allow students to advocate for the accommodations needed to facilitate their learning. However, after 30 years, shouldn’t many more of these easy accommodations already be built into the systems? We are still in a place where accommodations are an afterthought rather than being incorporated into the building of the systems from inception, a theme I have found a lot surrounding the ADA. When the pandemic hit in full force, these glaring inequities were highlighted in ways never before experienced. The beauty of the ADA is that its protections now ensure that there will be a favorable accommodation afforded. But after 30 years, shouldn’t those accommodations already be in place?
The titles of the ADA offer regulations, suggestions and guidelines for the inclusion and accessibility for Americans who are living with a disability. Education is just one piece of a very large puzzle whose landscape is ever shifting. In the early 1970s there was legislation in a few areas meant to bridge the accessibility in areas of education, transportation and public access that began a new wave of advocacy. In the area of public access, the ADA made the strongest impact, some in the community would argue. All public buildings built after 1990 were required to be fully accessible and any existing buildings were also required to bring their accessibility up to standards with some provisions. Today you would be hard-pressed to find a building or public space that does not conform to access standards. A movement to build access in from the planning stages rather than retrofitting took shape and for the most part is the industry standard.
In the late 1980s a young visually impaired woman graduated from college and went to work in New York City in the hospitality industry. She was hired by a global hotel company and was excited to begin her career. At that time there were far fewer considerations in place for Americans who were disabled, and she speaks of the procedures in place at the time for access for guests who were visually impaired or physically disabled as being archaic. Entry to the hotel lobby was elevated and required guests to climb several steps before reaching the entrance doors. Before the ADA there was no ramp or secondary access, and at the time it was hotel policy for two porters to lift and carry an individual in a wheelchair from street level to the entrance. Additionally, there was no braille signage anywhere in the hotel, so visually impaired guests and the one visually impaired employee had to rely on memory or sighted assistance to navigate the large building. After the ADA was enacted, she recounts the many ways in which the company put off making changes that would bring the hotel to accessible standards. Her direct supervisors were understanding and very progressive in thinking, and she states that is the only reason she stayed with the company as long as she did. However, the years after the ADA was passed and the lengths the company went to in order to bypass making the changes that would make allowances for all took their toll, and in 1997 she left the company to move into a position with a competitor who had made access for all one of its highest priorities.
There have been a lot of changes since the signing of this monumental act and, although we aren’t always happy with accommodations, there are measures in place to make sure we can and will be heard. Transportation is another widely debated area in matters of how far we have come and how far there is still to go. The rapid growth in the industry and the technology that is ever expanding and changing makes the area of advocacy in this area challenging. The 1970s saw the beginning of considerations in the transit arena shift focus to more accessible ideas if not so much in practice. Rapidly changing models of transport systems and the growing voices of Americans with disabilities who were more and more vocal about the need for transportation to be accessible were already being implemented in some places. I spoke with Ron Brooks about the changes and challenges in transportation; he told of times when before the ADA the transportation systems were often difficult if not impossible for some people who were visually impaired to use. Bus drivers wouldn’t announce stops and would even mislead riders as to where they were being dropped off as well as older transportation methods that had no ramps or lifts for wheelchair users. There was a growing need for the paratransit system to be able to fill in the gaps where public transportation could not meet the needs of all riders.
Today, the systems are still growing, changing and incorporating technology that has the ability to make using public transportation so much more reliable and easier to use for all people, especially ones with mobility challenges. Paratransit is ever in a state of trying to streamline services to best meet the needs of its users while staying in sometimes ridiculous budgets. What the ADA does for transportation is to ensure that whatever existing systems or new additions to systems that are added have accommodations either built in or that paratransit equalizes the use factor to bridge the gaps.
So has the ADA lived up to the promises it made? Has it advanced the lives of the people it was enacted for? Is the language of the laws in place defined enough or broad enough to continue to be an effective set of laws for our changing world and population? Those questions have been asked along with so many others since its inception and we are still asking them today. The answers vary depending on whom you ask.
What I have learned is a drop in the bucket as far as history and implementation is concerned, and I have a lot more to learn. What I do know with certainty is that, technology or not, I would have had a much harder time managing losing my sight 31 years ago. I would not have had protections I often take for granted 31 years ago. Without the ADA it is hard to say how much progress the communities of disability would have achieved the last 30 years. It’s often said that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. In the case of the ADA, for advancements to be made, the ADA gives the structure for squeaky wheels to be heard, and like most social or civil rights, to advance and change. The more voices and the louder the chorus, the more effective the song.
In conclusion, I celebrate the Americans with Disabilities Act today and renew my vow to advocate for myself and my community because, at the heart of a nation like ours, I believe that laws don’t always cover the territory they originally intended. But if gaps and injustices are shown and advocated for in the right way, our country is still the best place in the world to have a voice in. Here’s to the next 30 years of advocating and showing the world exactly what we can do!