30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Celebrate. Learn. Share.
Sunday, July 26, marks the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This sweeping legislation led to an historic expansion of civil rights protections for people with disabilities across the nation. The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, private businesses, public accommodations, telecommunications and access to state and local government programs. Today, its provisions cover more than 56 million Americans.
The passage of the ADA in 1990 has a personal significance for me, because it led me to focus on my career path working to improve the lives of people with disabilities as a lawyer practicing disability law. Now, as director of the Office of Disability integration and coordination since 2017, I am able to help people with disabilities participate in—and benefit from—FEMA’s programs and services. And I join in celebrating this important milestone today.
When FEMA was created in 1979, the ADA was still 10 years in the making. But the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 already prohibited FEMA and other federal entities from discriminating against people with disabilities. Yet, children with disabilities were still often in segregated public schools. There were state schools for children who were deaf and blind. Even in major cities, there weren’t always curb cuts, necessary for the mobility of wheelchair users. Elevators and ramps weren't required by law. Braille descriptions were left off signs and elevator control panels. Captioning for television programs didn't exist widely.
Over the course of this generation, we've seen some huge advancements in accessibility for people with disabilities. So today, I think it is appropriate that we celebrate our successes and how far we’ve come as a nation. That we learn from our experiences over the past 30 years. And that we share our ideas and best practices with each other.
As President George H. W. Bush said at the time, “With today’s signing of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, every man, woman and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence and freedom.”
Many doors have been opened during the past 30 years thanks to the ADA. Public transportation has provided the means for people with disabilities to get to school, work and play. Changes in building codes have created opportunities for people with disabilities to choose the housing and communities they want to live in. Technological advances have enabled people with disabilities to communicate better, faster and more seamlessly than ever before. Durable medical and rehabilitation technology have empowered people with disabilities to push harder, run faster and jump higher — competing for and winning medals on the world stage at the Paralympic Games.
There are many ways that the ADA has benefitted people with disabilities during emergencies and disasters. For example, thanks to the requirements in the ADA that mass transit be accessible, people with disabilities are now usually able to evacuate in the event of a disaster or emergency alongside people who don't have disabilities. This is especially important, because people with disabilities tend to rely more heavily on trains and buses. Today, most major cities also have paratransit as a daily transportation option – a door-to-door accessible pickup and transport service that can also be activated in emergencies. Other ways include sheltering, post-disaster longer term housing options and rebuilding communities in an accessible way.
FEMA, specifically the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination and the Disability Integration Cadre, continue to lead the way in integrating the needs of people with disabilities into all of our agency’s programs and services. We work with our state, local, tribal and territorial partners to support them by providing technical assistance, training, tools and resources that guide them in serving people with disabilities in their jurisdictions.
The ADA opened the doors for FEMA and our partners to work together to serve disaster survivors with disabilities. We are proud to celebrate this important milestone and to continue our commitment to helping people with disabilities before, during and after disasters.