As we celebrate the 23rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, 2013, I recall a quote by Justin Dart Jr., the man described as the Father of the ADA. Dart said, “The vision of justice is an eternal long march to the promised land of the good life for all."
Now for those that may not know, the ADA is a landmark civil rights law passed in 1990 with bipartisan congressional support and signed by President George H.W. Bush. The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in areas like employment, participation in State and local government programs, and in most private businesses (public accommodations). Transportation and effective communication are also addressed in the law. Many people also don’t realize that for the past 40 years, all Federal agencies and any program that receives even one dollar of federal funding have had similar non-discrimination and inclusion obligations under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, specifically Section 504. Together the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA provide far reaching civil rights protections for people with disabilities.
The intent of the ADA was to establish a level playing field, a point where we can be equal, active participants in “the system.” After 23 years, people with disabilities know our ADA rights and more and more often, we are exercising them. Thanks to the promises and protections of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, people with disabilities are no longer content to just sit on the sidelines or be included as an afterthought as other people decide what is best for us. There is a saying used by people with disabilities, “Nothing about us, without us.” We want to participate and be involved in making those decisions that affect us.
The ADA has made incredible progress for the civil rights of people with disabilities but yes, we are still on that “eternal long march to the promised land.” We continue to break down barriers - physical barriers, programmatic barriers, transportation barriers, communication barriers, employment barriers, technology barriers, and yes, sadly, there are still attitudinal barriers as well. But things are changing.
In emergency management for example there is a renewed effort across the country to not just “plan for” people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs but instead to “plan with” the whole community. FEMA, FEMA’s Office of Disability Integration and Coordination, and our Regional Disability Integration Specialists are working with State and local governments, Tribal governments, non-profit groups, and private businesses by providing guidance, resources, and encouragement to include people with disabilities in all aspects of emergency management from planning and exercises to response, recovery, and mitigation. People with disabilities are getting involved in our communities. We are now a part of many emergency planning committees, citizen emergency response teams (CERT) and other first responder organizations.
So on this anniversary, we can look back on 23 years of hard earned progress and look to the future with hope of what is yet to come as we “march to the promised land of the good life for all."