Tagged with: accessibility ADA advocate athletes awareness disability disability rights education employment exercise inclusion life research sport wheelchair
In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I have been reflecting on what the ADA has meant to me. I acknowledge that we still have work to do in order to have complete equal rights for people with disabilities but, looking back, it becomes more apparent how far we have come.
I grew up before the signing of the ADA. As a child growing up with a disability since the age of 1, I did not have the advantages that children with disabilities have today. I went to school at a time when checking the box on the application form acknowledging a disability meant that you were then designated to attend “a special school” and ride “a special bus.” Access to the environment, to school, to a good education, to sports, to everything was a fight. I was fortunate to have a supportive and resourceful family that fought for me. They fought to get me into a school where I could cognitively excel. They fought to get me into programs where I could participate with other kids my own age. They figured out how to adapt activities so that I could participate along with my peers.
I do not think I truly understood self-advocacy until I went away for college. I went to my first classes and found that my classrooms were in old buildings with steps at all the entrances. I had to advocate to get my classes moved to other buildings and for dorm buildings to be made accessible.
Please, do not get me wrong; I had a very active, engaging, joyful childhood. However, I knew I had a disability, I knew I was different, and I knew there were activities that, because of the disability, I would not have any opportunity to do. For example, as a child with a disability, I never dreamt about participating in high-level competitive sports, let alone representing the USA in an athletic competition because these opportunities were just not possible, not available to people like me. Because of people who have fought for equal access for people with disabilities, because of the ADA, I have now represented my country in two Paralympic games, won two bronze medals in these games, broken several American records, become the first woman on the National Wheelchair Rugby Team; and worn the USA logo on my chest as I competed against the very best.
Nowadays, I find myself fighting less; there is usually an accessible entrance to buildings, and people typically want to understand and accommodate. There are more accessible main entrances in the front rather than through the back alley and through the kitchen. There are more programs that are inclusive of people with all disabilities. Again, that not to say that every environment is accessible or that every person is receptive to people with disabilities, but in my lifetime and in my experience, accessibility is now more the norm than the exception. We still have work to do in numerous areas of our society. For example, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is still higher than for people without disabilities, and this has not significantly changed since the passing of the ADA. I believe that we will keep fighting and, in the future, all areas of our society will be equally accessible for people with disabilities.
The ADA has shifted how we think as Americans, how we treat people with disabilities in our country. I truly appreciate the disability advocates that made the ADA a reality. I look forward to the advances our country can make over the next 25 years and remind myself that we all have a responsibility in helping to further realize the potential of the ADA.