By Steve Suroviec, President & CEO
In 1964, Jack Weinberg, a Berkeley-based activist, was quoted as saying “we don’t trust anyone over 30.” While there’s no connection between that quote and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I thought the 30-year reference was an interesting milestone to consider. It’s 2020, and the landmark civil rights law - passed and signed into law on July 26, 1990 - is turning 30!
In its youth, the ADA was new and disability advocates thought anything was possible. Indeed, a lot has been made possible because of the law. The ADA has produced or contributed to countless stories about people with disabilities who have succeeded and accomplished so much in their lives, both personally and professionally. Because of the ADA, we now have the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1999 Olmstead decision, which makes it illegal to keep a person with a disability institutionalized unnecessarily. We have curb cuts, public buses with chair lifts, and more people with disabilities in the workforce. For sure, much has been accomplished since 1990.
The possibilities seemed endless during the early years of the ADA, a feeling that’s natural with youth and tenacity. Three decades later, the ADA has aged a bit. The ADA was even amended in 2008 to fix some soft spots that had been revealed as court decisions weakened it over time. Yet the ADA stands strong today and is now a fixture on the American landscape. The good news is that with age comes knowledge and wisdom. Perhaps all of the low-hanging fruit has been picked from the ADA, but that just means it’s now time to be more thoughtful about how the disability rights movement can proceed with this law as its foundation. Let’s face it, despite the successes made possible by the ADA, there is more work to do. For example, the labor participation rate for working-age people with disabilities is barely half that of those without disabilities, and the unemployment rate is twice that of those who don’t have a disability. And, we still have elected officials trying to keep large state-operated institutions open for people who don’t need to be there (read A Bipartisan Stain on the General Assembly).
I’m not saying 30 is “old”, but the past three decades have given disability advocates plenty of knowledge and wisdom. That ADA knowledge and wisdom has provided a solid foundation on which to build an even brighter future for people with disabilities. But it will not be easy. It will take hard work, risk-taking, and persistence - as the ADA was never intended to guarantee any particular outcome; rather, it was intended to break down barriers and level the playing field for those who try. Even though the ADA will be “over 30” in a few days, I continue to trust it to help make sure that a better future for people with disabilities becomes a reality.