Generation ADA is Here to Stay in the Fight for Disability Rights

In honor of the 24th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), my friend and fellow activist, Maddy Ruvolo, and I released a podcast called Disabled Girls Talk. We focused on what it’s been like to grow up and function in society as part of the ADA generation, celebrating our civil rights.

To highlight the positive impact of the ADA, Maddy and I got people talking across social media about what this disability-specific legislation has brought into our lives. You can check out the #BecauseOfTheADA hashtag we started on Twitter to see an incredibly insightful exchange of ideas. It’s been amazing to see so many people acknowledging the progress we have made in ensuring the rights of the disability community in the United States.

And yet, there is so much more work to be done. So much more. On paper, the ADA promises access and calls for equality, but a massive group within Generation ADA, along with every other generation of disabled people on this planet, must fight and advocate our way through every single day against barriers, against prejudice, against outright discrimination. We are never unaware that change is hard won and progress must be made.

However, in our podcast, Maddy and I did indeed address the idea that we take some things the ADA has provided for granted. By this, I meant that when I go up a ramp into a public place, I should not HAVE to stop to express gratitude for having basic access. Neither Maddy nor I meant, in any sense, that we take the ADA as a whole, or the work of advocates before us, for granted.

So, when I read a response to our podcast and our friend’s blog post accusing Generation ADA of being careless, and of doing nothing more than paying a bit of “lip service” when we encounter discrimination or access barriers, I was honestly extremely taken aback.

First, how is it fair to take issue with the fact that my disabled peers and I enjoy the rights provided for us by the ADA? Isn’t that why advocates fought for such legislation in the first place? The generation who worked to turn the ADA into law deserves to feel pride in their immense accomplishment and asking Generation ADA to appreciate that is more than warranted. That being said, why is it a problem that some forms of access have become so integrated into our lives that we can sometimes use them without thinking about it? This means the ADA is working!

In some ways, that is. There are countless places in the United States that are still completely closed off to me because I use a wheelchair. There are countless people who believe I do not deserve the rights I already have, nor the rights that advocates of all generations have yet to secure. There are countless people who still perceive me as nothing more than an object of pity and view my life as one not worth living.

Did you catch that reference to “Lives Worth Living,” the documentary about the pioneers of the disability rights movement? That’s just one of myriad resources I’m lucky to have so I’ll never forget the activists who paved the way, the activists who made it so that even though I still face access issues and prejudice, I don’t face it nearly as much as they did only decades ago.

The fighters who have come before me are at the heart and soul of why I continue to fight for my rights, and I think it’s safe to say this goes for plenty of my peers. To assert that Generation ADA has given up this fight because we take something like a ramp for granted is a major misjudgment. There are unfortunately people in every generation who are apathetic about disability rights, because that’s just human nature for some, but they are outweighed by so, so many of us who work tirelessly as activists ranging from a local level to a national level, and from a national level to a global level. Rather than calling us out for what we’re supposedly not doing – potentially creating fissures within a community that so desperately needs to focus on a unified front to achieve progress – how about continuing to mentor, advise, and support us (as several older advocates already do) as we find our way forward in this country that’s still so weighed down by stigma?

You may hear me talk about how great it is to have automatic door openers, but how insulting to assume that because I can push a (usually faulty) button to open a door, it means I’ve resigned myself to the idea that there’s no reason to keep the flames of the advocacy movement going strong. These flames are my passion. They are the reason I write. They are the reason I use social media to spread the word about disability issues and rights. (And why yes, I do tweet about the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – #CRPD. In fact, I did an internship last summer with the Association of University Centers on Disabilities under the auspices of the American Association of People with Disabilities [AAPD] during which I went to meetings on Capitol Hill, and I literally did the research and wrote the talking points for people to use when calling senators about the CRPD.) They are the reason I speak up when I am subjected to injustices because of who I am as a disabled woman. They are the reason I am going to graduate school for my M.A. in Disability Studies. They are the reason I want to keep pushing towards the changes we still so clearly need.

Therefore, lazy and careless are some of the last words I would use to describe myself or Maddy. A quick Google search of “Maddy Ruvolo” or “Emily Ladau” would show that our advocacy efforts are anything but lacking. We’re both immensely involved and dedicated to disability rights activism.

Maddy’s leadership essentially began the conversation about disability at her college, Scripps. She founded the Disability, Illness, and Difference Alliance to create social and cultural change throughout her campus. Before her senior year of college, Maddy also did an internship through AAPD in Congressman Alan Grayson’s office. Following graduation, she took on a job at an independent living center in California, where she’s working as a Systems Change Advocate. So, I say this not just because I’m her friend: Maddy is an incredible advocate and leader.

I’m no stranger to the advocacy world either. I started at age 10 on Sesame Street, educating kids about my life with a disability, and as I grew, I discovered disability rights was my passion. I publish regularly on disability issues both on this blog and in publications that are read globally. I am on the board of a New York State advocacy organization called Youth Power! and was just nominated to be the chair of the Outreach Committee. Advocacy and activism are huge parts of my life.

Because of all this, creating the Disabled Girls Talk podcast with Maddy seemed like a great way to capitalize on technology and expand the horizons of the work we’ve already been doing. Discussing the impact of the ADA on our lives is something we are both proud to have done, and we will continue to tackle more disability rights issues in all of our future endeavors.

I see the bigger picture here, and I have every last bit of faith that my fellow Generation ADA advocates do as well. We need the Ed Roberts’, the Justin Darts’, the Judy Heumanns’ of our generation to come forward and continue the fight. And you know what? I firmly believe they’re emerging more each day. We’re out there, working on the next wave of the American disability rights movement, forging ahead, and always grateful for the guidance of the activists who laid the groundwork for the lives we all live today.



  1. It sounds like you encountered a noxious combination of nostalgia and “You kids get off my lawn!” syndrome … both of which crop up in every single generation, as the “outgoing” group looks at the “new” group and laments how different they are. I also detect a strain of a very specific kind of disapproval some people have for activism conducted through social media. How can you compare retweeting and clicking on a “Like” button with marching in the streets? Or, so the reasoning goes.

    As a somewhat older disability activist, I urge you and Maddie to pay it no mind. Do you thing, in your own way. I don’t think it is possible to have too many different methods at work, including blogging, podcasting, Twitter, Facebook, etc. There’s more daring and passionate disability advocacy and exploration on Tumblr (supposedly the favorite of “those kids”) than in the rest of social media combined. Is all of it finely crafted and vetted for public consumption? Of course not. But that’s okay. In fact, it’s fantastic.

    And try to remember, 30 years from now, not to gripe about how the the NEXT generation falls short on their commitment to the cause!

    1. Andrew – you added excellent points to this! There’s something just as raw and real in social media as there is in rallying. And I’ve done the in-person advocacy, too. 30 years from now, I’ll remind myself of how this felt!

  2. Hi Ladies,

    SO PROUD of you and this campaign! It is so important and so timely!

    I believe in assisting our youth with their future and being a mentor is the FAVORITE part of my work! There are so many young people doing great things and you are our future.

    Your work is amazing and I look forward to being a part of it!

    Keep going and LEAD ON

    Dara Baldwin

  3. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast yet. Tomorrow or over the weekend hopefully. But I was wondering: do you plan to put out more episodes?

    1. Hi Emma! Yes – we’ll be putting out more episodes in the future (with better sound quality!) Would love to hear your thoughts on our chat in the first episode!

  4. Em, I’m one of those “pioneers” that grew up long ago—50’s, 60’s, 70’s & 80’s—before the ADA was even on the drawing board. Life today in regards to access is night and day from the old days when most buildings had steps. A quick story:

    In the late 1970’s I was living in Atlanta, GA and I wanted access to my branch bank. I wrote letters and made phone calls. One day I drove by the bank and construction workers were building a crude ramp. The only problem was that the bank had three steps to get in the door, but the bank built a ramp to access the sidewalk only.

    I attended Georgia Tech which had poor access to most classroom buildings, and when I was hired for my first job with a ‘major’ corporation the building I worked in had no accessible bathroom. For two years I had to cross the street to find a restroom.

    With all the horrors stories I could tell you one thing stands out about those days and today. I felt less of an edge from people then as I do today. Kids are ruder today than ever and the days of parents teaching manners to kids seems to have left the building. I am not being critical of our growing foreign population, but the views regarding people with disabilities outside the USA can be harsh and I am seeing more of that pop up in my daily life than I ever have.

    Overall, my advocacy days are over and I am so glad a new generation like you and your friends are picking up where I left off. I am quickly turning into a senior citizen so I tend to go along to get along, but I feel happy that I did not give in way back when.

    1. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for sharing your experience and words of wisdom. I’m so glad to have a legacy of amazing pioneers like you to follow.

  5. So well put!

    I think it’s also important to recognize that many people with disabilities do advocacy by simply living their lives and showing, by example, how capable (in other words, human) disabled people are, and how beneficial equal access is to the fabric of our society. I fear that the same people who would criticize the validity of your activism would also have harsh words for people who aren’t politically or socially active, but who instead work to live successful, happy lives using the advances in access that have already been made, and promoting the need for better access when and if that comes up for them.

    Thanks for all that you do, and for your awesome posts here.

    (Thanks, too, for a comment form that plays perfectly with my screen reader.)

    1. Robin, you make an excellent point! The very act of living can be a form of activism. Also, so glad that the comment form is accessible to you. That’s a huge priority for me, to make things as accessible as possible.

  6. Wow. I’m so sorry that your important words and message was met with an internet troll’s insensitivity. Please keep doing what you’re doing. It’s so very important. I do believe that blogging and social media does help to raise awareness and can make a big impact on people’s perceptions of any special needs. It seems to me that you’re doing everything just right – very active in person and online. You have a new fan!

    1. It seems that no matter how hard some of us try to advocate, we’ll be met with unreasonable or unfair resistance. Thank you for your kind words and I’m so glad you do what you do! Also, I’m so honored you stopped by my blog. I am a big fan of your work and so glad we’ve connected now 🙂

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