Twenty years ago, signing of ADA a landmark

Twenty years ago, on July 26, 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law and changed millions of lives for the better — including mine.

When I was growing up legally blind before the ADA, no one thought that people with disabilities had civil rights.

If you were deaf and hospitalized, chances are you wouldn’t have had a sign-language interpreter.

If you used a wheelchair, chances are you wouldn’t have been able to get into most buildings or onto most public buses or trains or subways.

No matter what your disability, you would have had no legal recourse when you encountered disability-based discrimination in the workplace or a public accommodation.

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For instance, I remember being asked to leave a deli in New York in the 1980s because the manager thought the other customers would be “depressed” by my blindness.

So, like millions of people with disabilities nationwide, I cheered when the first President Bush signed the ADA and called for “the shameful walls of exclusion” to come tumbling down.

For the first time, there was legal protection for people like me from discrimination in employment, public accommodations and government services.

Today, because of the ADA, curb cuts, wheelchair ramps on streets and in buildings, Braille menus, sign-language interpreters for deaf people, accessible restrooms and polling places and schools that are inclusive to disabled students are part of the American landscape.

Plus, if you’re denied a job or asked to leave a public place such as a hotel because of your disability, you can seek legal redress under the ADA.

The Americans with Disabilities Act passed with wide bipartisan support after thousands and thousands of disabled people presented Congress with stories of the discrimination that they had faced.

In 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments was also passed with bipartisan support and signed into law by President George W. Bush. It restored the protections of the ADA that the Supreme Court had narrowed.

We’ve had other recent successes.

In June, the Department of Justice entered into a settlement agreement with colleges and universities that use Kindles. The schools agreed not to purchase Kindles that are inaccessible to blind students (who can’t read the menus of the devices).

And in July, three Washington, D.C., Hilton hotels, in an agreement with the American Association of People with Disabilities and the Equal Rights Center, agreed to enhance their accessibility.

The shameful walls of exclusion continue to keep tumbling down.

That’s good news for the 51 million Americans with disabilities, and good news for the country as a whole.

Happy anniversary, ADA!

Kathi Wolfe is a writer and poet. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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