20 years later, we can look back at the historical event of the signing of the ADA. Quite often, I can hear people asking the question, if only in their head, what difference has it made. It is strange for me to be considering this, as I am not “American,” so it feels a little odd passing judgment. However, I think I have a perspective that helps understand the importance of this law.
In the daily life of a person with a disability, many of the changes of the ADA have been lasting and impactful. However, to the mainstream individual who isn’t affected by a disability may not see the difference that the ADA has made. Things are never what they seem.
When people who are teaching or training disability awareness talk about “curb cuts”, it can sometimes seem like a broken record. However, the reason we do so is because it is the one thing people without disabilities are guaranteed to come in contact with in their daily lives. It is very unusual today to go anywhere and not encounter a curb cut. Yes, some older communities (and older is a relative term) may have unbroken curves. In general, Main Street, USA has curb cuts. Teenage skateboarders, wheelchair users, and elderly individuals using walkers, we have all made good use of curb cuts over the years. In the assistive technology world, this is one of our favorite scenarios to talk about. It is the least technical thing that almost everyone in the group can relate to. Just like curb cuts, many of the other changes the ADA has brought about have been incorporated into our lives to the point of forgetfulness. Living in California, this happens more often than most places. I can walk into many public buildings with the confidence that the signage is accessible, elevator buttons will be in reach, and doorways will be wide enough for people to walk through. All I have to do to remember that all these things were brought about by laws traceable back to Canada. The Human Rights Act in Canada is extensive, but does not reach as far and is not as aggressive as the ADA or the California Fair Housing laws. In California, our laws tend to reach farther and serve us more effectively. I am always shocked and appalled to go back to Canada and find that a brand-new restaurant or office building does not even have an accessible bathroom. For me, it is only natural to assume that whenever there is new construction or renovation, it is a legal requirement to make access improvements. In California, that’s a safe assumption, but in many other places it is not.
While I watched all the ADA celebrations that I could last week I kept asking myself, “How does this affect me and what is changed?” Living day-to-day it’s really hard for people to understand that there has been change. There are many days that we get angry and resent all the things we have to do because of who we are. As a blind person, I resent not being able to drive. Being forced to use public transportation, not being able to find things as quickly or efficiently on the Internet, or not being able curl up with a good book that doesn’t require battery or power can be incredibly frustrating. Many of us change this resentment into a drive or thirst for new technology. So-called positive thinking. Just two weeks ago a friend showed me a solar USB charger for my digital talking book player. Of course, I wanted it immediately. Every new toy or device that means I can be freer to be “normal”. Every advance in technology brings me one step closer to true freedom. However on the days I’m down and the buses are running late, it’s really hard to feel so optimistic. Twenty years ago I would be less likely to find ways to improve my situation though innovation and technology. I think there would be a lot of innovation and change through technology, but it wouldn’t have led towards accessibility as the changes implemented by the ADA have. This means that technology could’ve advanced and left me behind. Instead, just one month ago the Department of Justice declared that educational institutions could not adopt technology that was not usable and accessible to everyone. Each time one of these rulings is made, interpreting the ADA, my life gets more and more “normal”.
Working in a university, many of the students I deal with on a daily basis have never lived without the ADA. Each new year I see students coming to campus that were born after the ADA passed. Not having ever gone to school or tried to ride a bus before the ADA is a vastly different experience as a youth. I’m not implying that students should experience life without the benefits of the ADA, however, a little retrospect and understanding of the history of disability management goes a long way. As the students go through school demanding their rights and accommodations, it’s worth them asking who and how these accommodations were defined. What if, when we considered access to education laws, we did not include educational materials? It’s hard to believe that we wouldn’t have thought that the books were also part of education. But in a time without ADA regulations and laws, it might have easily happened.
I guess what I’m really asking for is, as the students go on into the future and make their own changes to the laws and regulations and peoples “normal existence”- that they had as much foresight and inclusion as there was in the past. If at any time they think one person is more important or can make a difference they realize they’re wrong. The reason the ADA has worked as well as it has is because of the image that has been brought up time and time again this past week; the image of thousands upon thousands of stories making the complete picture. It is interesting how I can close my eyes and imagine I was there the day boxes upon boxes of testimonial were brought in to Congress to make the point that access was not only needed, but demanded by the people.