Every year, when the anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) rolls around, I find myself wondering how much further the Disability Rights movement has come in the years since the elder President Bush signed it into law.
These days, activists seem to be playing a game of whack-a-mole, trying to smack down each move the current administration makes to pull civil and human rights from the grasp of the disability community.
But as satisfying as it may be to direct so much righteous anger toward the people in power, I’ve had to admit to myself that the Trump regime is far from the main responsible party for the access barriers and discrimination disabled people encounter daily. Sure, it’s arguably worse overall as of late, and the government could and should be making efforts to fix issues instead of contributing to them. The reality, though, is that the disability community has been fighting the good fight for years, and no political party, corporation, or public system has fully risen to the occasion.
Yes, we’ve made so much progress. I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that. And I’ve heard my generation called out time and again for taking that progress for granted, for not knowing how good we have it. I know I’ve got it pretty good. I’m full of endless admiration and gratitude toward the activists who got us to where we are today. But in so many ways, this world is exactly the same as it was 28 years ago when President Bush called for “the shameful walls of exclusion [to] finally come tumbling down.” Those walls are still up in full force, and try though we do, we cannot simply legislate them away.
Because that’s what the ADA was intended to do. It was intended to put an end to the stigma and the obstacles and the exclusion. It was a law meant to be on our side.
But where were the mighty protections of the ADA when a broken elevator trapped me underground on a subway platform in Union Square and there were no nearby wheelchair accessible stops? It wasn’t the ADA that lifted me and my wheelchair up the stairs; it was six NYC firefighters.
And where were the protections of the ADA when, for at least the 15th time, a hotel gave away the wheelchair accessible room I reserved? It wasn’t the ADA that fixed the problem; it was my advocacy and fury. The same advocacy and fury that, when unleashed en masse, led to the passage of the ADA 28 years ago. I thought the point of the ADA was to relieve this unending need to fight.
Where were the protections of the ADA when I couldn’t find an accessible parking spot for the zillionth time while out and about running errands?
And where have the protections of the ADA been every time I’ve had stares and comments and insults about my disability rip through me? Where has the spirit of the ADA been within society? The spirit of inclusion, equality, humanity? Truth be told, I don’t think it’s sunk in yet, nearly three decades later.
So here we are, in a world that is technically post-ADA, but feels so very stagnant – and in many ways, so very regressive. For this, we can decisively point fingers at current legislators on both sides of the aisle who lent support to the grossly misnamed “ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017.” There’s no doubt people (namely business-owners and lawmakers) are working as tirelessly right now to dismantle disability rights as activists are to maintain and expand them. But the odds are doubly stacked against the disability community as we’re fighting to hang on to rights that haven’t been fully acknowledged in the first place.
You’re probably thinking I’ve just written the pessimistic activist’s manifesto. I get it. No one wants to hear a bitter disabled person’s laments – especially not on the one day of the year I should literally be celebrating 28 years of civil rights. But here’s the thing: activism is cyclical and often leaves us feeling defeated, and it’s 100% okay to recognize that truth. In fact, I’d say it’s actually healthy to be honest about what we’re up against. You know why? Because it stokes the fires of passion and fury that keep us going when the going gets tough. And the going will continue to be tough in the years to come, to be sure. But I can say with a full heart and sincere optimism that the disability community I’ve come to know and love is empowered and ready to continue walking and rolling through the flames.