July 26, 1990, was a life-changing day for people like me. Twenty-five years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law.
If you’re able-bodied, you may not realize how important the law has been for people with disabilities. Thanks to the legislation, an extension of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that Congress passed with bipartisan support, Americans with disabilities – about one-fifth of the population – have legal redress against the discrimination they face in so many aspects of their lives.
One day in 1989, I went to grab a burger at a deli.
“You can’t stay here,” the man behind the counter said. “Blind people will depress other people.”
A quarter century later, because of the ADA, such discrimination is illegal. A patron prohibited from entering a restaurant or cinema; a student denied an education because a school isn’t wheelchair-accessible; or a qualified job applicant denied an interview because of his or her disability – they can seek legal redress for this discrimination.
Thanks to the ADA, wheelchair ramps, Braille on elevators and sign language interpreters have become a familiar part of everyday life. The other day, a server at a diner not only welcomed me, but offered me a Braille menu. Deaf people can access captioning of their favorite shows on TV. Employers are hiring qualified people with disabilities. Recently, an Apple technical support representative told me that he was “hard of hearing” and that a hearing aid enabled him to effectively do his work.
Yet, despite this progress, much remains to be achieved. Less than 20 percent of people with disabilities were employed last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Many doctor’s offices and hospitals still aren’t wheelchair-accessible. A few years ago, I was hospitalized with a badly injured knee. In the hospital’s orthopedic surgery ward, I was unable to get into the bathroom with a walker. Medical facilities, as well as courts and prisons, too frequently don’t have sign language interpreters for deaf people.
Inaccessible websites continue to put up barriers for blind and visually impaired people. I’m often at my wit’s end when I try to book an airline reservation or find a company’s contact information online because a site isn’t accessible to me. Deaf people often can’t get good video captioning online.
Amtrak, our national passenger train service, is particularly behind the times. Just 18 of Amtrak’s nearly 400 stations are accessible to people using wheelchairs, crutches, braces or walkers (or even a woman with a baby stroller).
“Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down,” President George H.W. Bush said as he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act 25. As we celebrate the ADA, let’s keep working to tear those walls down.
Kathi Wolfe is a writer and poet. Her most recent collection, “The Uppity Blind Girl Poems,” was published earlier this year by BrickHouse Books. She wrote this for Progressive Media Project.