The ADA is not dead yet, and so are we.
In 1991 when I was learning the details of the Americans with Disabilities Act, in order to educate others with disabilities, business owners, governments, etc., the dates for entry into compliance of many of the law’s provisions seemed very far away. I had seen and profited from many changes wrought by earlier disability rights laws, but I had also battled for compliance and implementation. All that to say, I didn’t know what the future under ADA would look like.
Resistance started early; bus and subway drivers didn’t want to have to announce stops. A mechanized solution was only moderately successful, and the struggle continued until the technology caught up to the problem. Announcements are better, if not perfect.
On the other hand, people are still fighting for effective communication (having an interpreter in the delivery room instead of via video link) and even the ADA Amendments act has not made much of a dent in employment discrimination.
Where the ADA has succeeded is in the incremental changes. After 25 years, even the smallest businesses have made renovations, and many have taken up their obligations under the ADA to make those renovated areas accessible. Increased access has led to a certain level of normalization; fewer people freak out when they see a disabled person.
One very ugly feature of the current socio-political landscape for people with disabilities is the growing hysteria that is the assisted suicide movement. In 2015, assisted suicide legislation was introduced in 17 states in the U.S., defeated in some, and postponed in others. In Canada one province has legalized euthanasia, and the Canadian Supreme Court has reversed its 1993 ruling in the Rodriguez case, and said that assisted suicide is A-OK for people with disabilities.
In 1990 I looked forward to transit access, usable print materials, more sign language interpreters, acceptance of HIV/AIDS. What I didn’t expect is that 25 years later I would be immersed in a struggle for the lives of people with disabilities. I didn’t expect to be confronting the great shout of the assisted suicide promoters; “WE’D RATHER BE DEAD THAN DISABLED.” I didn’t know the effect this constant message would have on those of us who believe disability is something to be proud of. I didn’t count on the division in the disability community; between those who want to believe that assisted suicide is an expression of autonomy and those of us who believe that there can be no free choice to die as long as we don’t have a free choice in where and how to live. I didn’t expect the level of fear and apathy that I’ve found among people with disabilities, the reluctance to speak out about threats and abuse in the medical system. And I certainly didn’t anticipate working side-by-side with people of faith with whom I disagree on many political and social issues.
We knew that the ADA would not end disability discrimination. What we didn’t know is that we would have to be fighting 25 years later against the ultimate, deadliest form of discrimination.
There is a generation of disabled people who have never known a world without the ADA. Many are exceptional advocates with an untarnished belief in their right to access and supports for full integration. When I hear their outrage at the assisted suicide movement, I feel both comforted and inspired.
There are others who grew up with the ADA who think the struggle is over. They want to get on with their lives, don’t want to get stuck in the “disability ghetto.” Maybe they think that as a middle-class, skilled professional they will never be considered just another cripple.
My response is to paraphrase Justin Dart; “get involved in politics as if your life depended on it, because it does.”