The Americans with Disabilities Act at 20

Our country is observing a significant milestone this week – one that has literally transformed the lives of millions of Americans over the past twenty years.

In fact, the 1990 Americans with Disability Act (ADA) has proven to be a landmark civil rights law.  It has outlawed discrimination.  It has opened doors of opportunity.  And it has given millions of Americans with disabilities — and their families — a new lease on life.

On the most basic level, the ADA is all about access – access to public places … to employment … to transportation … and to communication.    It is also about justice, equality, and the right of every American to reach her / his God-given potential.  

Taken together, the ADA is about a better way of life. 

The impact of the law has already been widespread and meaningful. Curb cuts for those with mobility challenges.  Captioning for those with hearing loss.  Workplace supports for those with physical impairments.   But the impact is perhaps most evident in the change in attitudes – towards people with disabilities and by people with disabilities.    Increasingly, Americans – across the board – are recognizing that the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” belongs to everyone, regardless of a person’s abilities or disabilities.

But like any civil rights effort, the ADA is a work in progress.  It takes time to change old behaviors.  It takes resources to tear down physical barriers.  And It takes patience to tear down social ones.

It also takes leadership.

Fortunately, we now have a President who “gets it” when it comes to the topic of disability and is willing to use his office to address the issue thoroughly, effectively, and honestly.  In fact, in a clear departure from many of his predecessors, Barack Obama has made disability rights a key component of his presidency.  He spoke often and in unprecedented fashion about it on the campaign.   He created senior-level disability positions in his administration, including the first Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy.  He even signed an international convention designed to promote the rights of people with disabilities – a convention that his immediate predecessor refused to support.

Needless to say, the ADA is an important law.  With 54 million Americans with disabilities, it is a law that affects nearly every family, every community, every neighborhood – either directly or indirectly.  It is a law that spans across every race, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.   It is a law that impacts the lives of every age group and every socio-economic class.

In other words, the ADA is one of the most sweeping civil rights laws ever adopted and put into force, thus making its anniversary a very special, very important cause for reflection, celebration and rededication.

Michael W. Kempner is the President/CEO of MWW Group ( www.mww.com ), a Top Ten National Public Relations Firm based in East Rutherford and an Operating Advisor for Pegasus Capital Advisors.

The Americans with Disabilities Act at 20