Anniversary of the ADA – How far we have come and how far can we go?

July 26, 2022, marks the 32nd anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

There’s a fascinating story behind this image of President Bush signing the ADA.

Justin Dart, the man seated in a wheelchair on the right of the photo, was a member of the President’s National Council on Disabilities. He took a leading role in building support for this proposed new law. He traveled to all fifty states, bringing together people with disabilities and compiling evidence of the difficulties and discrimination that they faced in their everyday lives. They created a record of the conditions faced by persons with disabilities in the United States, which came to be known as the “discrimination diaries.” The record created by the hearings and the individual discrimination diaries was eventually delivered to Congress and formed an evidentiary basis for the ADA.

The other man seated on the left side of the photo is Evan Kemp. He was an advisor to the President as the Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In that role, and with his visible disability as a man in a wheelchair, he advocated for the ADA in the halls of Congress. He actually made certain that the President was aware of instances in which some members of his own Administration were not supporting the bill.

These two men have a place in history, but they were far from alone. Another story from the passage of the ADA was the Capitol Crawl on March 12, 1990. One of the key stories in that event was that of Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, then just a child, who joined many physically disabled people in crawling up the steps of the U.S. Capitol to show the lengths they had to go to just to access to the halls of government. Jennifer is now an adult and continues her advocacy today.

The ADA in 1990 was a landmark piece of civil rights legislation, giving a voice to people with disabilities that they had been denied up to that point. The history of this moment, and the years of protests and advocacy that preceded it, are not the subject of the history we learned in school. I am hoping that will change now with the passage of the Disability Inclusive Curriculum Act as part of the education code in Pennsylvania.  I am proud of my role in passing that bill, and look forward to continued work with state officials and the citizen lobbyists like my constituent Lisa Aquila who pressed for its passage.

The idea of an inclusive curriculum is that the disabled experience will be learned as a part of the human experience. More than one in four people are disabled in the U.S. The disabled community is diverse – from the physically disabled who were the earliest voices; to those with sensory disabilities like deafness and blindness who focus on language and communication access; to people living with intellectual disabilities who are proving their worth and value in employment and other areas of society; to folks with hidden disabilities of mental illness who are often still in the shadows. For me, it is important that everyone in our society is recognized for the gifts and skills they have to share, and if we stop and take a moment, we will see that many people who have lived at the margins of our families, our classrooms, and our places of power like government and business have much to teach us. We just have to be willing to learn. The experiences of all our students will be enriched by knowing these stories and their impact on all our lives. It is my hope that the Disability Inclusive Curriculum will follow on the trail blazed by the ADA in helping that to happen.

So, take some time today to learn the stories behind the ADA, and the people who made it happen.