Fifteen years ago today, with bipartisan support in Congress and broad endorsements from the civil rights coalition, President George H. W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), calling for the “shameful wall of exclusion” to come tumbling down. As we mark this significant anniversary, we celebrate improvements in access to polling places and the secret ballot, government services and programs, transportation, public places, communication and information technology. Parents pushing strollers, workers delivering packages, and travelers pulling roller bags have grown accustomed to curb cuts, ramps, and other accessibility features less common in 1990. Our country is more accessible today thanks to the ADA, and all Americans are better off.
Although substantial progress has been made, we are reminded every day of the significant remnants of the “shameful wall of exclusion” that continue to prevent this great country from realizing the full promise of the ADA.
• The majority of Americans with disabilities continue to live in poverty and unnecessary isolation. • Most adults with disabilities are either not working or not working to their full potential, robbing the economy of the contributions of tens of millions of would-be workers. • Children and youth in special education continue to drop out of school in alarming numbers before obtaining a regular high school diploma. • The promises of higher education, accessible and affordable housing and transportation, quality affordable healthcare, and a living wage continue to elude many adults with disabilities and their families. • The ADA is slowly driving policy changes that have enabled more people with significant mental and physical disabilities to live independently in the community, but the ongoing institutional bias in the Medicaid program keeps too many people trapped in nursing homes and other institutions, unable to enjoy the freedoms and personal choices about where and how to live that other Americans take for granted.
New technologies are increasing the independence and productivity of many Americans. Yet, advances in technology alone are not guaranteed to improve the lives of people with disabilities. As we develop applications like Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VOIP) telephony, wireless telecommunications, widespread broadband internet connectivity, new medical devices, new computer applications, and a plethora of new genetic tests, it is critical that these technologies be designed and used in a way that increases the inclusion, independence, and empowerment of Americans with disabilities as well as America’s growing senior population.
The ADA has begun to change the landscape of our cities and towns, but a civil rights law alone does not create the kind of transformation of attitudes that Americans with disabilities, their families, and allies are fighting to achieve. This kind of change requires widespread discussion, education, and consciousness-raising.
• In 2005, how do fears, myths, and stereotypes continue to artificially limit understanding and acceptance of Disability as a form of human diversity? • What role do the mass media and entertainment industries play in forming public perceptions of disability, and how can decision makers in these important fields be influenced to produce more content that depicts the actual life experience and first person perspectives of people with disabilities? • What can be done to further improve accessibility at the design stage of new products and programs? • How can disability awareness and disability-friendly practices create more productive places of business and learning? • What concrete actions can worship communities and sports and recreation programs take to foster full participation of children, youth, and adults with disabilities in these activities? • Why do so many Americans continue to view disability as a fate worse than death, and how do these views affect surrogate medical decision making and the application of new genetic testing technologies? These questions form the basis of an American conversation that still needs to take place.
Widespread social change cannot simply be legislated, and it will not occur without bold leadership from all sectors of American society.
• Public and private employers, in particular, must make a serious, concerted effort to recruit and advance qualified workers with disabilities within their labor force. • Election officials must take the necessary actions to ensure that every adult is able to enter his or her polling place and cast a secret and independent vote. • School administrators and university presidents must embrace their responsibility to deliver a world-class education to all their students.
It is time for leaders across America–business owners, little league coaches, moms and dads, sheriffs and clergy–to reject exclusion, paternalism, and segregation and to take personal responsibility for removing barriers to full participation that still exist in every community in this country.
With the aim of making America work better for everyone, the undersigned organizations pledge to build on the progress of the last 15 years and join together to promote the full participation and self-determination of the more than 50 million U.S. children and adults with disabilities. We believe that disability is a natural part of the human experience that in no way should limit the right of all people to make choices, pursue meaningful careers, live independently, and participate fully in all aspects of society. We encourage every American to join us in this cause, so that our country may continue on the path that leads to liberty and justice for all.
Signed (in alphabetical order):
AAPD (American Association of People with Disabilities)
NCIL (National Council on Independent Living)
Idaho State Independent Living Council