An American in Paris, and Beijing, and London…

During a series of trips through Europe and Asia that I completed last week, I was reminded that the Americans with Disabilities Act really is the Americans with Disabilities Act, and why our nation should be so proud of that milestone. So many of the offices, buildings, public facilities, train and plane stations that I visited were largely inaccessible to people in wheelchairs and with other disabilities. The relative progress that America has made on this issue benefits not only people with disabilities, but all of us.

Passed by Congress and signed by the first President Bush in 1990, the ADA ensures equal opportunity irrespective of disability in employment, transportation, telecommunications, public accommodations and state and federal services. Just as importantly, the law ushered in a new mindset about who we are as a society, and what equal opportunity means in America.

Equal opportunity, the ADA has helped teach us, is not about treating people identically, but about treating all of us as equals. For example, giving people in wheelchairs “access” to the same courthouse steps offered to people who can walk up those steps—as Tennessee tried to do in an important 2004 Supreme Court ADA case—is treating people identically, but not as equals. The Court correctly held in that case, Tennessee v. Lane, that requiring George Lane to crawl up a Tennessee courthouse staircase to participate in his own trial was not only unconscionable, but illegal. (Remarkably, the Court’s four most conservative justices at that time would have held that Congress lacked the power to outlaw such state practices in this manner).

Like all steps that expand opportunity, the ADA is as much about America and all Americans as it is about people with disabilities in particular. Enforcement of the Act has enabled millions of Americans to participate fully in our economy, in our democracy, and in the social fabric of our society. That benefits all of us, and it upholds our nation’s highest values. Who knows, for example, how high our national unemployment rate would be today if the 41.2 million Americans who have disabilities, according to the US Census, were unable to participate in the jobs they are qualified to do.

At the same time, the Act has improved our thinking about what an inclusive society should mean in the 21st century. One important concept that the ADA helped to advance, for example, is “universal design,” the idea that a wide range of buildings, products, and environments can be created, from the design stage, to accommodate people with different abilities and purposes—think of how modern US sidewalks dip down to the street at the curb to accommodate people in wheelchairs, but also kids with bicycles, baby boomers with artificial knees, delivery carts, and ultimately, all of us. Conceptually and in practice, the ADA has helped our nation improve itsunderstanding and implementation of opportunity—the idea that everyone should have a fair chance to achieve his or her full potential.

My comparison to Europe and Asia is not meant to suggest that the people of those continents are somehow less concerned about people with disabilities. I saw many Parisians, for example, scramble to give up their subway seats to people with limited mobility far more quickly than my fellow New Yorkers do (when they do it at all). And there are areas in which certain countries in these continents are ahead of the global curve on this issue. My point, rather, is that, as a national law covering the private and public sectors, backed by enforcement in the courts and by the US Department of Justice, and widely covered in the press, the ADA has helped to bring transformative positive change to our country that is more than the sum of its parts.

That said, our nation, too, has important work still to be done in order to ensure fully equal opportunity irrespective of disability. Mental illness, for example, still carries inappropriate stigma in our country, and is poorly addressed by many employers, insurance providers, and others.

And on the global stage, the United States has signed, but not ratified, the international Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities—meaning that the President has signed the treaty, but Congress has not yet approved US participation in it. While the convention includes many of the same protections offered by the ADA, it is an important vehicle for sharing best practices within the international community, developing knowledge about particular issues such as children with disabilities, and recognizing that equal opportunity irrespective of disability is a human right that all nations should uphold. Congress should move immediately to ratify the Convention, using the International Day of Persons with Disabilities—three weeks from now on December 3—as an impetus to at least kick off public discussion on the subject.

Other steps are also needed. The ADA is under constant legal attack from noncompliant companies and governments, and the Supreme Court has sent mixed signals regarding its reach and constitutionality—in 2008, Congress passed, and the second President Bush signed, the ADA Amendments Act, expressing the need to reinstate the full intent of the law after the Supreme Court had unduly restricted it in a line of cases. The federal government and public interest groups must hold the Court to a proper reading of the law, while showing why it is both constitutional and crucial. Companies, governments, and other institutions must provide training and support to staff on implementing the letter and spirit of the Act. And the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, badly in need of rebuilding after eight years of neglect, must provide clear guidance on ADA implementation, while aggressively pursuing violations of that and other equal opportunity laws.

Finally, as we approach the 20th anniversary of the ADA next year, it’s important that the law’s purpose and contributions to our nation be documented and shared widely, particularly with a younger generation of Americans who came of age after its passage. As my recent travels reminded me, advances in equal opportunity can become an invisible part of the environment over time. That’s generally a good thing, but it can also lead us to forget why they are so important. It’s crucial to explain again and again that, like the Civil Rights Acts that proceeded it, the ADA is helping America to be America.

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