This year, the Americans with Disabilities Act has a thirtieth candle to blow out on its birthday cake. The ADA is the widest-ranging and most comprehensive piece of civil rights legislation ever passed in the United States, and it has become the model for disability-based laws around the world. We reached out to some of our authors to reflect on the impact of this landmark in disability history and on the ongoing fight for disability rights. We share their statements with you below.
“It’s a milestone in US history. It’s the result of many years of struggle, organizing, and voices of a single people to speak up and out about discrimination and to demand change. Beyond the changes the ADA is making in our lives, we need to focus on how it came about: the ability for Congress to work in a bipartisan way. It required disabled people and organizations of and for disabled people to come together in a more unified fashion, looking for a civil rights law that would clearly articulate that discrimination is illegal in the public and private sector.
“We need to pay significant attention to the efforts put forth to get the ADA passed and the results of the ADA thus far, because the disability community was and still is, in numbers, very large. But the ability to come together is much smaller. We’re talking about 60 million disabled people. Disability in Section 504 is a broad definition, which is necessary to protect the rights of people who have been discriminated against based on disability. Since disabled people have many types of disabilities, they are still siloed into the label of their disability. Over the past decades, we’ve had to learn about the common issues: denial of equal opportunities; lack of sign language interpreters in hospitals; accommodations for the blind or people with mental health disabilities, for example. We look at ramps, wider bathroom stalls, closed captioning. These are things we benefit from in US society and around the world. They’re universal now. It was disabled people who pushed for these issues, which were adversely affecting nondisabled people, too.
“In the area of employment, we have seen changes going on in hiring practices, as employers recognize it’s their legal obligation not to discriminate and to affirmatively hire disabled people. We’re seeing a more visible disability community in society overall. But two areas that haven’t made much progress are journalism and media—the most glaring being advertisements. Ads have changed so much in my lifetime. You see a broader diversity of people—no longer just white people or straight people—except in the area of disability. Disabled people continue to talk about that bias and our absence in media, film, television, and documentaries.
“The ADA raised the expectations of disabled people. It’s the law of the land; it has repercussions to make sure people are compliant. It’s a thirty-year-old law, but many disabled people still don’t know what it is. There needs to be more robust training so that people with disabilities are fully aware of it.”
—Judith Heumann, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist
“The ADA was a key part of the great cultural push to recognize people like me as actual people, not half animals or to-be-gawked-at freaks. America, like the rest of the world, has been shameful in its treatment of people who need more help to thrive, especially those people who aren’t regarded as worth the money it would take to keep them alive. The ADA armed people like me with the teeth of the law, something sharp and protective to help us as we claimed our right to live fully in this world. It was the ADA that pushed for TV and movies to be captioned so I could watch and understand them; the ADA that pushed cities to make their buildings and streets and busses and transportation accessible to my friends with mobility impairments so they could go to the movies with me; the ADA that pushed business to consider hiring people like me and my friends for the jobs they’d advertised instead of automatically assuming we couldn’t do those jobs and sending us packing. It was the ADA that said, by law, you couldn’t ignore people like me, shove people like me aside, deny us an education, hide us away, leave us to die or simply gawk as we struggled or get up a flight of stairs, into a bathroom or just across the street. People can be really well intentioned and still not do the good they know they should. The ADA gave those people with good intentions laws to abide and an outline of how they could put their good intentions to work. I’m a far happier person these days. I’ve thrived. The ADA is one of the best examples of reasoned, thoughtful, and compassionate government that values all of its citizens, even—perhaps especially—those of us for whom life has proven tougher and less kind.”
—Terry Galloway, Mean Little deaf Queer: A Memoir
“For the ADA’s thirtieth birthday, Disability Pride marches had to be scrapped because of the coronavirus pandemic. A celebration at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, was canceled for the same reason. But the day will be celebrated. The New York Times is running a series of ADA Thirty essays, which is a stark contrast from just five years ago, when it had nothing except for an op-ed piece I’d pitched. And a number of virtual parties are being planned over social media. There is still considerable pushback to gut ADA requirements. There is still a lot of misunderstanding. There is still discrimination. Yet a new generation of disabled people who came of age after the ADA won’t be idle. They’re defending it and working to fill the gaps it left. The story of Disability Justice has only just begun.”
—Ben Mattlin, In Sickness and In Health: Love, Disability, and a Quest to Understand the Perils and Pleasures of Interabled Romance
“The ADA remains an effective piece of legislation that guarantees disability rights during a time when many rights and programs are being cut back. It has resisted legal challenges and endures. During the time of COVID, we have seen disabled people being triaged in some states, being pushed to the bottom of the list of lives worth saving. But again, legal challenges and disability activism backed by the ADA have been successful in changing guidelines in some states to make it illegal to discriminate against disabled COVID patients in need of treatment and equipment. The ADA is not a perfect law, but it has teeth and fights back against a tendency to weaken it.”
—Lennard Davis, Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How the Americans with Disabilities Act Gave the Largest US Minority Its Rights
“Because of the disability rights movement, which was led by fearless parent and patient advocates, we now live in a world where it is common sense that medically complex children—even the ones who cannot speak, walk, feed themselves, or breathe on their own—get to attend school, live with their parents, and hold down jobs without fear of getting shipped off to institutions ‘for their own good.’ With the ADA, we now live in a country where the fake science of ‘refrigerator’ mothers, whose lack of warmth and nurturing were believed to cause autism and other behavioral and psychiatric conditions, has been debunked as the dangerous nonsense it was. Every day I spend with my daughter Cal in a school or a park or even in our home would not have been possible without a revolution most Americans don’t even know happened.”
—Maria J. Kefalas, Harnessing Grief: A Mother’s Quest for Meaning and Miracles
“Because of the United States’ global standing, activists and lawmakers around the world pay attention to what’s happening in America. It’s safe to say that without the ADA, there might not have been the 2000 Barrier-Free Transportation Law, nor the 2016 Law for the Elimination of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities in Japan. While there is still much work to be done regarding accessibility and opportunity for people with disabilities in the United States and the rest of the world, we can see the way forward thanks to activists such as Judith Heumann, who made the ADA happen. Those activists have also shown the power of peaceful protest and persistence. I think of them every time I come across a ramp or accessible bathroom or see-through mask or lack thereof. While I will always be an ally, I have learned that the best way to advocate for my daughter, who is deaf and has cerebral palsy, is to teach her how to use her own voice and stand up for herself.”
—Suzanne Kamata, editor of Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs, author of Squeaky Wheels: Travels with My Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-tuk and Wheelchair