Where were you on July 26, 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law?
When it happened, I was 5 years old, and just beginning to consolidate long-term memory. I was just beginning to understand and retain time as a continuous flow, rather than retaining brief, disjointed clips of experience.
I don’t know what I was doing on July 26. I know it fell a few weeks after I moved into my sister’s bedroom with her (her idea) and shortly before our first cross-country family vacation I can remember, going to Maine to visit my aunt and uncle. It fell almost exactly a month before I started kindergarten at the local public school.
I wonder if my parents were aware of the ADA’s signing or of any of the activities that led up to it in the preceding months. If they were, it was unlikely they discussed it with me then, nor would I have understood what it meant. At the age of 5, I didn’t know what a disability was, nor that I had one. I barely knew what the word “blind” meant at that point. I had not yet been told that I couldn’t play ball with the other girls or sit with my friends outside the “handicapped” seats on the school bus. I had no concept yet of being different from almost everyone around me, and I automatically assumed that if my peers got to do something, I got to do it, too. It would take several more years of life experience before I could really appreciate what it meant to be part of a “protected class.”
Those of us in the “ADA generation” perhaps grew up taking for granted that we have a right to access. It may be hard for us to believe that there was a time not too long ago when our right to access places of business, employment, education, and other amenities was not guaranteed. At the same time, though, legislation has not guaranteed the implementation of access. Many of us still face the same exclusion, at least occasionally and sometimes often, that the law was meant to prevent.
I’m not sure when I first learned about the ADA. It was probably in high school, when my Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) went out of her way to teach me about the various laws that protected my educational rights. Most disabled students never receive explicit instruction on their legal rights. Nor is the history of the disability rights movement taught in high school or undergraduate-level history classes. It’s usually only found in specialized books or advanced courses on the topic.
I wonder if the current generation of disabled children are learning about their legal rights. Kids are hearing about other equity issues, such as the inclusion of people with LGBT identities, younger than I did. I wonder how it might have felt to find out what my disabled elders had done to secure my rights. Maybe not at age 5 when the ADA was first passed, but when I was 8 or 10 or 12 years old, and starting to ask the tough questions. It might have been comforting and refreshing to know that, even though the majority of people viewed me as different, there were laws on the books affirming my right to fully participate in the community.
On the 31st anniversary of the ADA, we celebrate. We also bemoan all the work that still needs to be done to fulfill the spirit of the law. As part of that ongoing work, may we consider how we can make “disability history” more mainstream, how we can educate and empower the next generation of disabled people to continue the labor toward equality. I dream there may come a day when laws like the ADA are no longer necessary, because it will just be commonly accepted that all bodies and minds equally belong.