Fight for equality continues 30 years after disabilities act signed
This summer the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turned 30. The bill came in response to years of mounting public pressure from people with disabilities who had organized a nationwide grassroots campaign of sit-ins and protests demanding equal rights. Congress finally passed the ADA to ban discrimination against people based on their disability so we can participate fully in life. And on July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed it into law.
I was eight years old.
I had been diagnosed with Spastic Diplegic Cerebral Palsy years earlier, as a toddler. I'm grateful for the protections the law has afforded me and indebted to everyone who fought for its passage. I did not need to know the daily indignities of not being able to enter a building because I have a physical disability.
Before the ADA, when I was in first grade, my mom had to beg for me to be accepted into a mainstream classroom with general education students by personally appealing to the principal. This was a public elementary school.
However much I love the ADA, a law is a moralized statement of ideals. Whether we enforce its mandates is what counts. Even now, three decades later, an overwhelming need to enforce the ADA in our communities persists.
I fought for enforcement as an elementary school student. I helped design and fundraise for what was billed at the time as the first fully accessible playground in the nation. When I was nine years old, I experienced exclusion at recess. It was my dream to be able to play with other kids without barriers separating us. Luckily, I met a contractor who liked my ideas and made me the only child member of the planning committee, even nixing an early design that was not 100 percent accessible due to my input. The Rotary Club of Portland made my dream a reality as I spoke of the need for barrier-free play structures and spearheaded a $2 million fundraising campaign to build the playground. Construction began when I was 10 and was completed six years later.
None of that would have happened without the ADA. In a world without the ADA, I would have sat alone on the playground at school and dreamed of being able to access the play structure.
Since its passage I have had many, many experiences that would be technically deemed discrimination under the ADA — for example, being told in an interview for my first paid employment that I was "exceptionally overqualified" for the position. How can a recent college grad with no professional experience be overqualified? Let's be honest, we all know why I was disqualified.
I am a big fan of civil rights laws, but even more a fan of true enforcement to back up the ideals enshrined in those laws. Congress created a nationwide network of Protection and Advocacy organizations to serve as a watchdog for people with disabilities and to enforce the ADA and other laws that protect their rights. I'm proud to have worked for Oregon's Protection and Advocacy organization, Disability Rights Oregon, for several years, and to currently serve on its Board of Directors.
Thirty years later, the fight for equality continues.
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