Reflections on the 31st Anniversary of the ADA

“We should treat everyone according to the Golden Rule.” This is what we heard last summer on a call with students in inclusive college programs celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA. We had asked what the students knew about the ADA. Why do we need an ADA? We assumed they would know, and they really didn’t. The students really didn’t understand why you should need a law to say that they should be treated the same as everyone else. At first, we were really surprised!

Then, when we started thinking about it -- maybe there is a silver lining here. These students may not have experienced a lot of the disability discrimination of past generations. They may not understand about segregation, sheltered workshops, earning less than minimum wage, being placed in an institution for your entire life. They have lived in the community with their families, gone to their neighborhood school with their friends and, now that they are of college age, gone to college just like the friends they grew up with. They have expectations to find a job, earn a living, have a family. 

They don’t know that people with disabilities were left out of the 1965 Civil Rights Act and that it took the ADA, the most importance civil rights law of the last 50 years, to make sure that they could physically enter a restaurant or movie theater, be included in camping and recreation programs, get a job, have buses and doors and ramps that everyone can use, take guide dogs on airplanes or use telephones if you are deaf. They didn’t know they needed a civil rights law!

So, maybe that is the good news. But they do need to know these things. They need to know that when the ADA was passed it was supported by a wide variety of religious groups, civil rights groups, groups representing racial and ethnic minorities, women, and LGBTQ groups. The ADA was truly a group effort, because people realized that our country left out a lot of people. Groups who got their civil rights protections in 1965 worked in 1990 to make sure people with disabilities were not left out.

They need to know about the Capitol Crawl. They need to know that the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC is for ALL of us. When some people with disabilities couldn’t get inside, it made them angry. They wanted in because our government belongs to the people. So, to make that point, people with disabilities left their wheelchairs, canes, walkers, and scooters at the bottom of the stairs at the Capitol and crawled up the steps to show why it was important to require that the Capitol be accessible so everyone can visit.

They need to know that the ADA was passed because of the hard work of advocates with all kinds of disabilities from across the country working together to make change. Justin Dart (pictured above), the Father of the ADA, traveled all over the country collecting stories, pictures, postcards and letters, having people sign petitions to present to Congress, and organizing people with disabilities to fight for their civil rights.  

They need to know that the ADA can be threatened. A few years ago, some people wanted to make it hard for people with disabilities to get into public places and keep us from being part of society. This taught us that even after 31 years, we need to fight for the right to be free and included.

Now that we have just celebrated the 31st anniversary of the ADA, we realize the students were right: we should treat everyone according to the Golden Rule…but we also need to have laws to protect those rights and it takes all of us to do that. Even though students might think they are so lucky to live in a world that they are included and able to enjoy the rights of any citizens of this country, we think it’s important to take the time to look back and be glad that the ADA was written and we must PROTECT it like gold.

National Coordinating Center