Twenty-Five Years of Freedom and Service: The Americans with Disabilities Act

Twenty-Five Years of Freedom and Service: The Americans with Disabilities Act

You know the old joke, right?

“Do they have a 4th of July in France?”

“Of course they do . . . and a 5th of July, and a 6th . . .”

Many Americans are familiar with the fact that France has its own national equivalent of our Independence Day. July 14, known as Bastille Day for the hated prison in Paris that was assaulted on that date as a defining moment of the unfolding revolution, is commemorated in ways very similar to Independence Day in the U.S. Flags are flown, patriotic songs are sung, people gather together to party, and fireworks light up the night sky.

Generally speaking, they don’t eat hot dogs, hamburgers, or barbecue on the 14th of July in France, and the beer they drink is very different from the most popular brews at 4th of July backyard gatherings. But it’s a similar celebration.

To me, July 26 also should be marked by such a celebration. For if ever there was a date that marked the advent of true freedom and the beginnings of a revolution that would alter fundamentally the lives of countless millions, it is July 26.

On that day, in 1990, the first President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act while its bipartisan cadre of congressional champions looked on, a mixture of pride and deep satisfaction on their faces and in their hearts.

Those of us who are free of disabilities or whose disabilities are very modest (I’m colorblind and myopic, neither of which ever threatened my ability to make a living or have a meaningful life) may have a hard time understanding just how revolutionary this moment was. Those who are young enough never to have known American society without the ADA (and at least some level of meaningful implementation of it) almost certainly do not appreciate how much our nation has changed in its wake.

Educators certainly know. Students who once would have failed or at least faltered because the distractions created by 20 fellow students made it difficult if not impossible to concentrate on the task at hand now complete their assessments in less distracting environments and demonstrate what they are capable of.  Students who cannot hear, who cannot see, who cannot walk, who cannot control their arms or hands, sit and learn side-by-side with students who otherwise might never have known about the challenge of deafness or blindness or paralysis and the strength of character that it takes to overcome them.

Employers and construction contractors certainly know. ADA has, at times, imposed difficult burdens upon them, raising questions about what the price of freedom for a person with a disability should be, and who should pay it. But if they have been fortunate, they also have seen a return on their efforts and investments in productive workers, new customers and a degree of personal satisfaction.

I’ve seen it in deeply personal ways. I’ve watched some of my children, whose disabilities, in the age of my own childhood, would most likely have left them earthbound and shoved off to society’s alleyways, soar. Two earned high school diplomas (and now are adults contributing to society in a variety of ways) who almost certainly would not have worn a cap and gown without the ADA. Two others, college degrees.

I am aware of the very real costs of the Americans with Disabilities Act, costs that have gone to the bottom line of businesses and government agencies alike. The act, at times, might not have been implemented in the most thoughtful, fair and effective manner.

But when I see a child, hungry for learning, devouring the opportunities the ADA has presented; when I see an adult, bound by physical disabilities to an electric wheelchair, leading students to a higher, wiser and bolder vision of themselves and their place in society; when I encounter an employee who perhaps never will balance a checkbook or fill out a project plan, provide customer service with warmth and dedication unrivaled by his or her “abled” peers . . . then I am certain that this kind of freedom is worth any price.