Celebrating the ADA — Reflections From Tom Harkin

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As we all know, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As chief sponsor of the ADA in the Senate, I will always remember the day it was signed into law—July 26, 1990—as one of the proudest in my legislative career.

We have come a long way in the last 20 years. Before the ADA, life was very different for people with disabilities, and discrimination was both commonplace and accepted.

I still recall the hearings we conducted in both the Senate and the House, and the testimony of so many individuals with disabilities from all across America about the discrimination that they faced on a daily basis.

We heard stories of individuals who had to crawl on their hands and knees to go up a flight of stairs or to gain access to their local swimming pools. Stories of individuals who couldn’t ride on a bus because there wasn’t a lift. Stories of individuals who couldn’t go to concerts or ballgames because there was no accessible seating. Stories of individuals who could not even cross the street in their wheelchairs because there were no curb cuts. Stories of individuals who could not buy a pair of shoes or go to the movies. In short, stories of millions of Americans who were denied access to their own communities—and to the American dream.

Passage of the ADA was a bipartisan effort. As chief sponsor in the Senate, I worked very closely with people on both sides of the aisle, both in Congress and in the Administration. Senators Ted Kennedy and Bob Dole were indispensible allies. We received invaluable support from President George Herbert Walker Bush and key members of his administration, including White House counsel Boyden Gray and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. And there were so many others—Justin Dart, advocates, other members of Congress and the Administration—whose commitment and support were instrumental in helping pass the ADA. The final vote on the ADA (91 to 6 in the Senate) sent a resounding message that this nation would no longer tolerate isolation, segregation and second-class citizenship for people with disabilities.

Over the last two decades, we have made truly amazing progress. Streets, buildings, sports arenas and transportation systems are more accessible for people with physical impairments. Information is offered in alternative formats, so that it is usable by individuals with visual or hearing difficulties. New communications and information technologies that are accessible to people with disabilities continue to be developed.

Because of the employment provisions in the ADA, many individuals with disabilities are now able to get reasonable accommodations on the job, such as assistive technology, or accessible work environments, or more flexible schedules. These reasonable accommodations are important tools in ensuring that people with disabilities have an equal opportunity in the workplace.

These changes are all around us. In fact, today they are so integrated into our daily lives that it is sometimes hard to remember how the world used to be.

Just as important, we have seen an enormous change in attitudes toward people with disabilities. Our expectation is that we will do what it takes to give individuals with disabilities not just physical access, but equal opportunity in our schools, in our workplaces, and in all areas of our economy and society.

Today we recognize that, like all people, people with disabilities have unique abilities, talents and aptitudes. And America is better, fairer and richer when we make full use of those gifts.

Every individual with a disability deserves a chance to realize the four great goals of the ADA: equal opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency.

However, progress under the ADA only happens when people—people like you—understand what the law requires, and then choose to make it a priority to ensure that individuals with disabilities are included in all aspects of community life.

It’s one thing for people with disabilities to have rights on paper and a very different thing to know that they enjoy those rights in everyday practice, especially in their communities and in the workplace. We are in an ongoing fight, a never-ending struggle, to vindicate those rights.

To those of you who are on the front lines in this struggle: I thank you for the work you do every day to ensure that ADA is alive and vibrant in your communities, opening doors of opportunity and breaking down barriers of discrimination.

We have continued to advance the rights of individuals with disabilities and the four goals of the ADA with the recent passage of the ADA Amendments Act, which restored our original Congressional intent, in respect to who is covered by the ADA. We also passed the Community First Choice Option, which will increase the availability of home and community-based services for people with disabilities.

And yet, our work is not yet done. An ongoing challenge is to increase employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Recent surveys show that only 37 percent of individuals with disabilities are employed. These are individuals who want to work, but who are unemployed due to a variety of factors. Many individuals lack adequate support services, some employers are not providing reasonable accommodations, and others are still reluctant to hire people with disabilities.

As a consequence, an estimated 21 million people with disabilities are not employed. We must break down the barriers that prevent or discourage individuals with disabilities from working and having the opportunity for economic self-sufficiency, as we promised in the ADA. That is why I will be hosting a two-day Congressional summit in the fall that will focus on the employment of individuals with disabilities in America.

On July 26, 1990, when he signed ADA into law, President George Herbert Walker Bush spoke with great eloquence. I will never forget his final words before taking up his pen. He said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

Today, that wall is indeed falling. The ADA has opened doors, created opportunities and transformed lives. Together, we can help ensure a future of even greater inclusion, equality and opportunity for all Americans.

by Senator Tom Harkin

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) is Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and is a regular contributor to ABILITY Magazine

Articles in the Peri Gilpin Issue; Senator Harkin — Remembering Eunice Kennedy; Ashley’s Column — Perfecting My Poker Face; Humor — I’m Okay, You’re Okay; Blue Cross — Protecting Our Patients; David Radcliff — Still Standing (Kind Of); Advocacy Award — Lacy’s Legacy; Justin Dart — Disability Pioneer Continues to “Lead On”; Celebrating the ADA — Reflections From Tom Harkin; ADA Crossword Puzzle — Now With More Puzzle!; Methamphetamine — Making it Crystal Clear; Borderline Personality — Stop Walking on Eggshells; ABILITY Awards — We Like You, We Really Like You; Iraq And Back — Wounded Warriors Revisit the Past; Self-Defense Clinic — The Best Offense; MS Drug — AMPYRA: A New Gait For Independence; Peri Gilpin — Sitcoms, Sarcoma and Stewardship; Spud — Not Exactly Small Potatoes; Randy Pierce — The Blind Leading Himself; Fuller Center — Volunteers With Disabilities; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences…

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