“This act is powerful in its simplicity. It will ensure that people with disabilities are given the basic guarantees for which they have worked so long and so hard: independence, freedom of choice, control of their lives, the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream.” President George H.W. Bush
On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act. On that sunny July day, I was in attendance as then-Governor Evan Bayh’s representative to the White House and witnessed the signing of this landmark piece of civil rights legislation.
The ADA has had a tremendous impact on millions of Americans with disabilities, their friends and loved ones. I am one of those Americans. Born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, or “brittle bone disease,” I have utilized a wheelchair since childhood. I graduated from college, earned masters and legal degrees – all before the ADA became law. For a young lawyer, the ADA meant that I could finally enter nearly any business and meet clients and colleagues without concerns about accessible accommodations. Up until the ADA, the logistics of a simple client meeting presented a daunting challenge.
The ADA is continually evolving. It’s been a privilege to see this process firsthand, working with businesses and organizations in the public and private sectors to create accessible and inclusive spaces. The physical access the ADA has encouraged – ramps, curb cuts, audio tools, for example – is tangible evidence of the progress we have made. Businesses and organizations across the country have applied a comprehensive approach to integrate structures and programming, thus increasing opportunities for people with disabilities to participate. Not only can we now access the park, we also can enjoy a picnic in the pavilion with our family and friends because of the accessible features.
As I look back to where people with disabilities have been – and where we’re going – there is much to celebrate. By law, we are afforded the same rights as other Americans and diverse groups. But, we have much to do if we are to fully blend into the fabric of our nation.
People with disabilities have the ability and the desire to participate in our economy. Yet, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is disproportionately higher than for the general population. With technology revolutionizing how we connect to each other and our jobs, people with disabilities have an opportunity before them to apply their skills in ways never thought possible. After all, if a person can navigate the complexities of living with a disability, they can certainly navigate the challenges of full-time employment. Indianapolis has long been a national model for encouraging all levels of access and inclusion. Ball State University’s Bowen Center for Public Affairs is identifying and addressing employment barriers for people with disabilities. I’m proud to be a part of that effort.
Next week, I’ll return to the White House to witness President Barack Obama commemorate the 20th anniversary of the ADA. That a man with a disability will come to the nation’s capitol to celebrate a landmark civil rights legislation with our country’s first African-American president speaks to the power of America. Even more, we will celebrate this milestone publicly, in the same house where an American president 70 years ago hid his disability from the world.
How far we have come. How far we have to go. Yet, we can – and will – travel the journey together.