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ADA Generation: Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (Part 1)

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It was 25 years ago today that one of the most influential, life-changing disability policies was signed into law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  For those who were born during the 80s and 90s, disabled Millennials also known as ADA Generation, it is hard to phantom living in a world without this mandate that guarantees our rights to equal access to education, healthcare, transportation; as well as necessary accommodations and accessibility in utilizing services and resources in our communities.

ADA Generation Ramp Their Voices!

I wanted to share the thoughts and stories about the passage of the ADA from those who have been directly or indirectly affected by its existence.  Part 1 of this special series will highlight four stories from those who have experienced the protections for which the law provides, as well as have seen the gaps that still exists that need not only our attention, but our action.

Sofia* is a disabled blogger who recounted an important aspect of the mandate:

It, like much policy that has provided shelter, has simply presented a platform from which I can rise and demand a life worth living not simply the right to live.  It comes with, much like being a hispanic woman, allowance with judgment.

Alene* shared how the ADA protected her right to work, and not be penalized for taking care of her health:

ADA affects me because I am able to work, but when I had to have two wrist surgeries 7 months apart, and took 2 to 3 months off, the ADA protected me.  My job couldn’t do anything [such as fire me based off my health status and needing time off work to recover] because I am protected under the disability law.

Tonia is a disabled blogger, who recalled that she cannot pinpoint exactly how the ADA has impacted her due to the negative experiences she had with ableist educators who failed to provide an inclusive environment:

The ADA passed when I was 9 years old.  It happened that, during my fourth grade year, I was surrounded by overtly ableist teachers (both my classroom teacher and my adaptive P.E. teacher).  I was unaware of the ADA’s existence until college, when I learned about it, having briefly pursued a Special Education major.  Therefore, it’s hard for me to discern a definitive before and after, in terms of how the ADA has impacted my life.

Juliana* & her husband William*; William has OI (Osteogenesis Imperfecta) and is a wheelchair user.  Juliana shared the struggles their family endures when they encounter the gaps that have yet to be corrected due to lack of adherence to the law:

The ADA was passed 25 years ago.  Wow.  That is both a lifetime away and such a short time all at once.  I am turning 35 and have a hard time wrapping around my brain that updates to the American with Disabilities Act were passed within my lifetime.  What is even harder to comprehend is that this law is not routinely regulated.  My husband, William, is in a wheelchair.  We have lived together for about 13 years.  In that time, we struggled constantly to find a wheelchair accessible apartment that we were permitted to live in.  So much so that we finally just bought a house in 2008.  The house we bought is set on a nice quiet cul-de-sac with two sidewalks leading out of our neighborhood.  When we bought the house, we noted the sidewalks, as William cannot safely wheel across grass as he has the Brittle Bone Disease, OI (Type: Brucks Syndrome), but we didn’t note that the sidewalks were not wheelchair accessible.  It took 4+ years to get the city to fix this issue.  Now we have two small children (2.5 years old and 1 year old) and we took a different path on our walk.  We found a walking bridge that appears to be updated (new cement) that is not wheelchair accessible.  I brought this to the attention of the IL Attorney General’s office and was redirected again.  Unfortunately, I work a fulltime job so I do not have time to also enforce the ADA laws, so we have just taken to telling our 2.5 years old we cannot go that route.  This gets harder every time we go for a walk.

This baseball season we took our sons to a local minor league game.  The boys liked the action, but were particularly taken by the brand new ferris wheel.  Our oldest wanted to go on it with Daddy.  As we walked closer I looked at it closely and felt that familiar pit in my stomach.  It didn’t appear to be accessible.  William can transfer out of his chair, but it is quite difficult to do on a moving item such as a swinging seat, and it can be embarrassing for him.  I saw an employee before we got to the ferris wheel and asked if it was wheelchair accessible.  They looked at me like I was crazy and simply said, “no, why?”  I caught William’s eye and just shook my head no.  We again took a different path and distracted our son from another activity he wanted to do because, believe it or not, in 2015 it is not accessible.

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic, but I am frustrated at the integrity of local government and businesses.  The ADA was passed (again) 25 years ago.  I could be wrong, but I don’t believe it states you need to follow the enclosed rules once you have been caught and told to do so.  Laws are passed with the expectation that you follow them without being caught and forced to do so.

On the other side of the spectrum there is Walt Disney World.  They go above and beyond requirements to make everything accessible for all levels of disability.  Not only that, but they don’t make you feel lower than low when you ask a question or for assistance.  William and I honeymooned there in 2006 and almost didn’t come back.  He didn’t get treated like luggage.  People actually spoke to him, instead of me, for matters affecting him.  He got to feel like a person and not a problem.  He was treated as someone that has value, not as a burden.  We have vacationed there many times because I don’t have to call ahead to ask permission to make sure he will be allowed to do certain activities; we don’t have to worry about the hotels being wheelchair accessible, and we aren’t glared at as though we are an interracial couple in the 1950s.  I was so impressed with how things are done at Disney World, I sent a thank you note to the executive board.  I firmly believe we should all send thank you notes, not just grievances, so companies / people know when they are doing something right.

It is my hope that by the 30th anniversary things improve.  I realize this is unrealistic since we are 25 years in and still having these issues, but I’ve always been a dreamer.  I have found ways to make those dreams come true.  I hope this is no different.

Final Thoughts:  

All of these diverse stories spotlight some of the triumphs and weaknesses of the ADA over the past 25 years.  As Juliana mentioned, it would be nice to have some of the obstacles that still remain extinguished by the 30th anniversary in 2020.  It may sound ambitious, but it is definitely not impossible if we as a society make it a priority to ensure that ALL Americans have the same opportunities to participate fully in our communities, and feel valued, regardless of ability.

On Tuesday, I will share my personal experience with the ADA in Part 2 of this special series.

(* = Names have been changed.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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