I’ve lived all over the place, and traveled past that. And while I deeply love the countries that raised me (namely, Fiji and Japan), I don’t think I will ever live outside the United States again for any great length of time. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is why.
What does the ADA mean, exactly?
People get the ADA confused with all kinds of other equal-access laws. I did too, before it mattered all that much to me, or rather, before I realized that I had been putting up with a lot that I didn’t have to.
The ADA – in a nutshell – means that people with disabilities have the legal right to what everyone else (without a disability) has. It seems like a small thing until it’s not – like, when I want Moxie to have access to an education. Or when I want to work, and someone won’t hire me because I am deaf, or because I need a particular phone to do my job.
The thing about other countries is that while the culture in other countries might be more accepting of disability, point blank, the laws are simply not present. So while I might be able to find a school that would welcome Moxie, or find a job myself, there is nothing to bite with if there isn’t.
The ADA Has Teeth
Stella Young said that the beauty of the ADA was that it has teeth. She famously said that wheelchair users can sit and smile at stairs all they want and have the best attitude in the whole world, but it won’t turn the stairs into a ramp. You are at the mercy of your great attitude without the ADA, you need to rely on the kindness and charity of others in order to be included and have access.
But with the ADA? You have an actual legal right to participate. You have the wherewithal and right to say, “hey, NO! I need to have an interpreter/ramp/large print/what-have-you in order to participate!”
We don’t need to feel apologetic about putting people out anymore. Access is a legal right. We have the legal right to participate. We have the legal right to buy and sell and work and engage in mainstream American life.
I love Mexico and I think we may have thought about living there if we didn’t have two people in the family with a disability. I need services like captioned telephone systems. I need interpreters at conferences and I need closed captions on videos, movies and all that good stuff in order to laugh at the jokes. Moxie’s needs will be more clear with time, I’m sure – for now it’s support in school and speech therapy.
But I’ll tell you this: I know how easy it is to acquire a disability. In one second, your life can radically change. You can be a kid – like I was – bouncing around on your seat in the car and in the next minute, you can go through the windshield and voila. You have joined the largest, most welcoming minority group in the world.
So while both Moxie and I need certain specifics related to our particular disabilities, I have my eyes on other disabilities as well. It’s far better for us to have our feet firmly planted in the United States – the country in which we have actual legal rights related to disability. If we should be unable to walk at some point in our lives, or lose our vision or whatever else might happen, we’ll be okay.
Because we have a right to access and participation here.
And I treasure it.
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In the spring of 1977, I took a quarter off from college, quit my job, and with my best friend bought a 1966 VW camper van to explore the United States. Before we left we spent a warm April day (California was in a drought and Jerry Brown was governor, how odd!) practicing the manual shift on the hills of San Francisco. We figured that if we could manage the hills of SF in the bus, we could manage it anywhere.
As we drove into the Civic Center we noticed a protest—not a rare occurrence in the Bay Area, but this protest was unique because the people protesting were people with disabilities. I admit that as an abled-bodied teenager, I didn’t have a clue what the protest was about but learned from the local news that protestors were demanding that the Carter Administration issue regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It made perfect sense and it opened my eyes to disability discrimination.
Fast forward 38 years to 2015, and we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), the glorious result of the disability community’s historic campaign to expand the protections of Section 504. In those intervening years I acquired a disability and had the incredible fortune to go to work at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF), first as its administrative director and now as the executive director.
DREDF was instrumental in the passage of the ADA, with Pat Wright as the leading political strategist, Arlene Mayerson drafting language and providing legal consultation to members of Congress, Marilyn Golden organizing people with disabilities nationwide, and Mary Lou Breslin providing the vision, intellect and historical context to DREDF’s work. In 2014, Senator Tom Harkin said about DREDF, “No group has been more instrumental in advancing the cause of civil rights for all people with disabilities than DREDF.”
The ADA is beautiful—what it has accomplished is spectacular. It has led to the removal of many, many architectural barriers, more accessible public transportation, made it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities in employment, an increasingly accessible Internet, more equitable delivery of health care, and much, much more.
I have savored the ADA’s impact on our social consciousness in small but beautiful personal moments:
In 2005, when my oldest son called from college to tell me that after an overhaul of the online game Star Wars Galaxies wiped out the ability of many players with limited dexterity to use “keyboard-only” commands, there was a major outcry on player forums to correct the programming so that players weren’t excluded.
Players with and without disabilities recognized that the upgrade had usurped the perhaps inadvertent though nonetheless universal design of the original game. I was so happy about the gamer community understanding access and inclusion that I barely even questioned my son about why he was spending time playing video games when he should probably have been studying.
In 2010, when my stepmother called to say that it dawned on her that she could insist (gently, according to her) that Amtrak allow my father to sit on the lower level of the train because he was no longer able to safely climb or descend the stairs.
In 2012, when my youngest son, who was working at a movie theater called to tell me that after he heard that the chain’s management had moved “The Sessions,” a film based on Mark O’Brien’s essay, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” from the first floor accessible theater to an inaccessible upstairs theater, he had called the Los Angeles headquarters to let them know that they were moving the film back to the first floor theater.
It is beautiful that the ADA has been used to:
Enshrine the right of people with disabilities to receive public support and services in the community instead of institutions pursuant to the Olmstead decision;
Keep families together (see the National Council on Disability’s 2012 report on the rights of parents with disabilities, Rocking the Cradle);
Ensure that online streaming videos (see the case that DREDF brought against Netflix) include captions so that people who are deaf and have hearing loss also benefit from and enjoy their content;
Promote inclusion in school for children with diabetes through a state Supreme Court opinion that determined that trained personnel or volunteers who do not hold a medical license can administer insulin in schools. The decision also means that people can remain in their homes and have attendants administer medication instead of being driven into a medical facility; and
Spark the enactment of disability rights laws around the world, and be a model for the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
There are so many more remarkable outcomes that I could add to this short list (I invite you to add to the list by using the Comments feature), and undoubtedly there are more to come.
I am excited to see how disability rights advocates and activists, in the tradition of the 504 protesters and everyone who worked to pass, implement and enforce the ADA, will use it to expose and eliminate lingering discrimination, increase opportunity and secure equality for people with disabilities.
About the author: Susan Henderson, Executive Director, Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund
Susan Henderson joined Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) in 1997. In addition to her executive director responsibilities, she directs DREDF’s Parent Training & Information Center, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education. In 2004, she started DREDF’s Foster Youth Resources for Education (FYRE) project to heighten awareness and protect the rights of children with disabilities in the child welfare system. In 2007, she established DREDF’s Disability and Media Alliance Project (D-MAP) to address the misinformed disability coverage that undermines public policy and legal advances to coverage that raises public awareness and helps to end disability discrimination. She works internationally with other disability-led organizations to conduct workshops on disability and human rights in Bahrain, Columbia, Guam, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Tanzania, Uganda and Vietnam.
Susan worked for 13 years as part of the cross-disability team that planned, designed and constructed the Ed Roberts Campus (ERC), a universally-designed building in Berkeley, CA. She currently serves as the president of the ERC board. She has worked in non-profit and law firm management and finance for over 20 years and has an MBA and a BA in Anthropology.
 Senator Tom Harkin, Remarks at an Event Honoring the History and Legacy of Senator Tom Harkin and Representative George Miller, Berkeley, California, September 3, 2014.