Twenty-three years ago this month, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.
The law was the culmination of years of effort by disabled people and their family members to break down barriers that had kept them segregated from the rest of society. It was a movement patterned after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, in which black citizens used civil disobedience to demand equal standing with whites.
Although the discrimination against Americans with disabilities was more of the passive, out-of-sight-out-of-mind variety, disabled citizens were treated as second-class citizens once, too.
People who were mobility impaired paid taxes to fund public buildings that they could not enter and buses and trains they could not board. Simply making their way down a public street was fraught with barriers, including high street curbs.
The mentally handicapped often would be sent to special schools to be taught away from other children, or forced to live in large group homes. The unemployment rate among those with disabilities was far higher than the general population, at roughly 70 percent or more.
In its 1970 constitution, Illinois included a provision forbidding discrimination in hiring, or the sale or rental of property to people with physical or mental disabilities. The federal government in 1973 recognized disabled Americans as a special class of citizens entitled to certain protections under the law.
In 1990, the government took a more comprehensive step with the ADA, which covers areas including employment, government, schools, transportation, access to goods and services, and telecommunications.
In many ways it has improved life, and not just for disabled people. More buildings feature universal access, amenities that no doubt will be appreciated as more Americans become senior citizens. Curb cuts on city streets make things more pleasant not only for those using wheelchairs and walkers, but also for bicyclists, skateboarders and others.
There is work yet to be done, however. Although one key goal of the ADA was to improve access to employment opportunities for people with physical and mental disabilities, some reports say that the employment rate remains fairly constant among those with disabilities, although researchers say there may be many reasons for that.
The ADA was an important step in making more Americans full participants in American society. Although there remains room for society to improve, the anniversary of the law is one to be celebrated.