When I talk to people about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – the United States’ first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities – I often get the impression that people think that it has just been around forever.
However, it was signed just 33 years ago in 1990. I am older than the ADA is.
I was only a toddler back then, but the passage of that legislation changed my future. Because while it didn’t happen overnight, the ADA slowly forced the country to stop ignoring people with disabilities.
Impact of the ADA
In the simplest terms, the ADA focused on two things – prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities, and creating equal opportunities for people with disabilities.
The average person without a disability doesn’t realize how many hurdles are hiding in plain sight even today, but before 1990, it was a minefield for those with disabilities. Sidewalks ended without a curb cut to get on or off them, essentially stranding a wheelchair and forcing them to turn back. A restaurant could refuse to serve a person with a disability. Even hospitals and healthcare entities weren’t required to be accessible. In terms of transportation, buses and trains weren’t required to be accessible for wheelchairs either.
And as for employment, people with disabilities before the ADA were often flat-out denied employment because of their disability. Despite progress we’ve seen in the accessibility space since the ADA, this is a major issue we are still dealing with today, and another area where more work has yet to be done.
The ADA did not fix these issues all at once, of course. Most of the country’s infrastructure was built long before 1990, and it’s not like the government can wave a magic wand and transform all stairs into ramps. However, it did put rules in place to force these types of public spaces to slowly become more accessible.
Sometimes it is hard for me to wrap my head around what it would have been like to be disabled before the ADA. It seems like such a grim alternate universe.
You see, when I was 18, my life was turned upside down. While on vacation with my family, I shattered my neck after a wave threw me into the ocean floor. I am now a quadriplegic, paralyzed below my shoulders, but thanks to the ADA, the possibility of having a fulfilling life didn’t have to end that day.
When I got hurt, I didn’t have to worry about finding a hospital that could accommodate me. When I wanted to go to college, I didn’t have to worry about if the school I wanted to go to was accessible. And when I graduated law school, I didn’t have to be concerned about whether the accommodations I needed would impact my ability to get a job.
The ADA laid the foundation for me to face less barriers and have access to more opportunities. A career and the ability to live independently in the community – it all can be traced back to the possibilities enabled by that legislation.
I’ve since passed the bar in Maryland and the District of Columbia, and now work as a medical malpractice attorney, a leading disability rights advocate, and as a consultant. I’m working hard for those like me, breaking down existing barriers within independent living, employment, transportation, and web accessibility. I was also appointed by the governor of Maryland to the State Independent Living Council to promote, support and enhance opportunities for Marylanders with disabilities to maximize choices to independently live, work and play.
I continue this fight because even though the ADA has opened so many doors that used to be locked shut, there is still a long way to go.
The Work Isn’t Over
Just like the millennials out there, the ADA is starting to feel its age. It’s time for a facelift so to speak.
For starters, you’ll notice that one mode of transportation that I did not mention above is air travel. Airlines were not included in the ADA, and let me tell you, traveling via an airplane as a power wheelchair user is a nightmare come to life.
Airplanes aren’t outfitted to allow my power chair into the seating area, meaning that I am forced to be physically lifted and placed into a seat. I feel like luggage. People get dropped and hurt every year during this process. Then, once in the seat, you are stuck there until landing. Need to go to the bathroom? Not happening.
Even if you get through all of that, my least favorite part happens next – the 20 minutes after everyone has deplaned, when you wait with gut-wrenching anxiety to see if your wheelchair – which was stored in the cargo area by someone that likely doesn’t realize how delicate they are – is still in one piece.
From December 2018 to March 2022, the Department of Transportation announced the number of “lost, damaged or completely destroyed” wheelchairs stood at 20,000. It is a very real problem, and it is a reason that some of my friends in wheelchairs avoid air travel as much as possible.
Beyond the existing issues of the physical world and its accessibility, the digital world has its own. Even after the last three decades, only 3% of the Internet meets accessibility guidelines. This remains true even with the Department of Justice consistently taking the position since 1996 that the ADA applies to web content. As an advocate for life, I wanted to do something to help with the dismal statistics and make the Internet more accessible. I joined accessiBe, as their community relations manager, to raise awareness about the importance of web accessibility and educate website owners of the different options to bring about access and inclusion.
I access the Internet with the use of voice dictation software, and it is a common occurrence that I find myself on a website where I cannot access menus or drop-down menus, or I cannot fill out forms. I find myself getting stuck and wishing I could experience a website just like everyone else.
Having access to medical providers online and legal websites are essential, yet I am not always able to do so without the assistance of someone else.
That’s not acceptable. Lesser access within the digital world puts underserved communities at greater risk of injustice and can jeopardize health outcomes and equity.
These are just two examples, but I could go on and on.
Our Societal Obligation
There’s an old Seinfeld standup routine where he claims that to him, lawyers are the only ones that actually know the rules of the country.
“We’re all throwing the dice, playing the game, moving our pieces around the board,” he said. “But if there’s a problem, the lawyer is the only person that has read the inside of the top of the box.”
As the people that know the rules, we have an obligation to make sure that justice and compliance are followed.
When it comes to the ADA, we need to do this by setting a good example in our own firms. Accessibility is a journey — it may take time to implement these changes, but being the voice to advocate for progress and help move the needle forward is an important role, even if it can’t be done overnight. It also includes us being stewards of the ADA, reminding everyone of the meaning and importance behind these laws, and holding them accountable.
Without us, the laws that have been passed are just like the rules to a board game that get tossed aside as people play the way they want to. And that’s not how a proper society works.