As a young boy, my mother brought me to Iowa’s capitol to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the ADA. It was a typical Iowa summer day, hot and humid, but the grounds were abuzz with excitement. For the first time, I saw people with disabilities of all kinds, together, reflections of one another despite our differences, gathered to celebrate all the progress that had been made in 10 short years. The event was an outpouring of joy at what we have achieved. An opportunity to express our gratitude to Senator Tom Harkin who authored and introduced the ADA, Senator Grassley who supported its passage, President George H.W. Bush who signed it, and to all those who helped to make the ADA a reality. It was a day I’ll never forget. Beyond introducing me to a law that would play a huge role in my life, it was an example of my mother teaching me to celebrate my disability, to celebrate my peers, and to never forget that my disability made me who I am, a person worthy of love and respect.
Once signed, The Americans with Disabilities Act became, as Senator Harkin often terms it, an emancipation proclamation for millions of Americans with Disabilities, and an all-important inheritance for the generations to come. For me, the ADA is a collection of legal protections that have proved essential throughout my life. Without it, I would not have graduated high school, I would not have met my wonderful friends at Drake University and I certainly would not have my job at Disability Rights Iowa. Every stroll through Valley Junction, every note of bluegrass enjoyed at the Iowa State Fair, every afternoon retreating to the cool of a movie theater with my sister on hot summer days are all memories made possible by the ADA.
I am a proud to have come of age in a post-ADA world, shaped by its indelible impact. As member of the ADA generation, I was allowed to grow up with the belief in my own value secure. A belief that my future was not restricted by my disability, but limited only by my talents and determination. Should I doubt that truth, I had a document with the signature of the President of the United States confirming my value as a person.
The American’s with Disabilities Act affirmed our immeasurable value and sought to bring about full participation in society. At the time of its passage, the ADA was radical, expansive and ambitious. Reading it, you can’t help but appreciate that its authors were attempting nothing less than the total removal of the societal constraints imposed on the disability community. It addresses everything from employment to educational access, curb cuts to captioning. Its very existence is a testament to the political strength of people with disabilities and their allies. It exists because of the efforts of millions, a nationwide cry for full citizenship, and for long overdue protection from systemic discrimination. As its scope and full meaning was supported by the courts, it became a means of moving away from the institutional approaches to care, towards true inclusion and choice.
Twenty-eight years later, the enduring legacy of the ADA continues to transform this country, and level the playing field for millions. For 28 years, our society has opened itself to people with disabilities in ways previously unimagined. This change allows members of the ADA generation to dream and succeed because of the unique gifts of their disability, and not in spite of them. People with disabilities are reshaping a world that is hostile to our very presence, and we are what we always knew ourselves to be: A natural and essential expression of the human experience. We have come a long way, achieved much with the help of our families, communities and allies. We must be proud of and celebrate our successes.
But even as we allow ourselves a moment of celebration, we must turn our thoughts to those unrepresented here this afternoon. Today, a young person with a disability will spend their time throwing plastic toys into a bag. Their future counted in cents by the hour, their ambition and talents stunted by a culture of lowered expectation. Another will spend their day in bed, with filthy sheets and festering sores, unable to receive the services essential for their dignity and safety. Another still will struggle to maintain their independence in the face of mental health challenges and crushing stigma, working against institutionalization. Our failures to fully make manifest the promises and protections of the ADA have severe human consequences.
For too many Americans, the ADA is not yet a reality. The transformation that so affected my life for the better remains for many a half-filled promise. This is a collective failure. Yet, the failures of yesterday do not dictate our future. Today, let us not just celebrate the achievements of the past, but the fact we have within ourselves the capacity to bring the ADA to all those in need of its protection. Is this a challenge? Absolutely. One we are well equipped to meet.
If neglect and prejudice persist as a form of institutional violence, then let empathy become a form of institutional love. Let our policies, practices, and minds be shaped by the higher principles of inclusion and self-determination so central to the ADA’s purpose. Today we celebrate how far we have come, and the hard road left to travel. The march goes on, the march to define and defend what Justin Dart Jr. called “a landmark commandment of fundamental human morality.” Everyday a powerful and new affirmation of our rights as Americans, and the unique beauty of the disabled experience.
Today is our celebration. Tomorrow, we get back to work.