It was 30 years ago today that the Americans with Disabilities Act became the law of the land. Since its passage, people with disabilities have seen their lives improve significantly. Less frequent are the days when a person with a disability needs to worry if the public building they have to go to or the public transit they have to use to get there will be accessible. Looking for a job has become less overwhelming, thanks to the knowledge that employers are required to make “reasonable accommodations” to allow a person with a disability to do their job.
As important as these changes are, the biggest change has been the societal change. People with disabilities are viewed differently than they used to be. They are more accepted in society. Look no further than Hollywood for proof of this. There has been a steady increase in the number of characters in the movies and on TV that have disabilities, and these characters have more depth than in the past. Even more striking is that a growing percentage of them are being played by people with disabilities.
These steps forward are a promising sign, but there is still room to improve. There are still issues to be addressed. The subminimum wage for people with disabilities needs to be eliminated. There are still too many people in long term care facilities who, with a little help, could live independently, allowing them to be more productive members of society. Unfortunately, Medicaid rules are such that they too often end up institutionalized, even though the cost to Medicaid would be substantially lower to help them live independently.
We also need to improve the way we handle invisible disabilities. Although improving, there is still a stigma attached to those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental health conditions, and other disabilities that are not visible to others. There is still too much of an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude. There is also a need for improvement in policies regarding education, employment, and housing.
Unfortunately, the disability rights movement has not been immune to the current atmosphere of hyper-partisanship. The ADA enjoyed strong bipartisan support in Congress and was enthusiastically signed into law by President George H. W. Bush. I fear that if it were to be debated today its fate would be quite different.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, a treaty based heavily on the ADA and signed by over 150 nations, has yet to be ratified by the U.S. Senate. Several years ago, former senator and Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole of Kansas went to the floor of the Senate. As a strong supporter of disability rights, he tried to convince enough of the Republicans to support it to garner the needed two-thirds vote. Sadly, he was not successful.
Despite these setbacks I remain optimistic for the future. American society has become more accepting and understanding of the differences among us. We are still a relatively young nation and one of the most diverse in the history of civilization. We are still going through our growing pains. We continue to become more inclusive, not less. It has not always been pretty or easy, but we keep moving forward. I am looking forward to seeing the progress we make by the 60th anniversary of this landmark legislation.