Celebrating the ADA’s 32nd Anniversary

July 26 marks the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the civil rights law that has changed the lives of people with disabilities in America.

To simplify its significance would be to describe it as an “…equal opportunity law for people with disabilities” guaranteeing “…the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life….” The ADA remains the largest comprehensive civil rights act since 1964’s Civil Rights Act and offers protections for public accommodation, public service, employment, and telecommunications. Though it accomplished a lot, we still have a long way to go to further preserve the rights of people with disabilities.

In my case, I am fortunate that the ADA passed just when I needed it.  On June 2, 1991, I was attending The Juilliard School on a full scholarship studying dance. At 20, I was injured in an automobile accident that left me with a spinal cord injury with the inability to feel or move from my chest down. I cannot imagine what beginning my life as a person with a disability would have been like without the ADA in place.

How the ADA is significant to me

The ADA has enhanced my life in a number of ways and, for that, I will remain forever grateful. The ADA is composed of five titles that offer protections for employment, public services, telecommunications, and miscellaneous.

For starters, as a man with a disability who uses a wheelchair, I’m able to ride public transportation on buses, trains, and para-transit. This allows me to travel for work and leisure, and to move freely and independently. Because of the ADA, I went from loading myself at the back of the bus as if I were Rosa Parks to entering the front of the bus.

Going to public restaurants, theaters, recreation facilities, and doctors’ offices is not as challenging anymore because of the ADA. Much of the public is now accessible, which is a major benefit for me—even though we still face difficulties with delays in transit, elevators that are not operating, and more. 

As a man with a disability, I am proud of the fact that I have been employed for more than 20 years. I am grateful for a job I love.

A personal goal is to be more of a beacon of light among the disability community and my peers, and to spearhead an initiative centered on paying wages that reflect and respect an individual’s experience in the workforce, despite disability. A report by the U.S. Census Bureau indicated that 2017 data found that “full-time, year-round U.S. workers with disabilities earned 87 cents for every dollar earned by those without disabilities. The gap widened even further when including all workers, regardless of work schedule or occupation, to 66 cents for every dollar.” We can – and must – do better.  

Reflecting on the ADA  

The ADA has changed my life and provides special purpose to why I advocate. In reflecting on my life, as well as the ADA and the significant difference it’s made for me and those I care about, I take nothing for granted. I realize we, as people with disabilities, need to continue on the road of advocacy. We have to fight the good fight, as others, including powerhouse disability rights advocates Marilyn Saviola and Anna Fay, did during their time. These two amazing women helped me to draw a road map for my life. They demonstrated perseverance and resilience and showed me how to identify and reach my goals including earning two master’s degrees, pursuing a career, and living in the community.

People with disabilities are still marginalized in many areas of life. It is hard to believe but it was not long ago, in the 1970’s, that a large percentage of the disability community was offloaded to institutions (atrocities like Goldwater come to mind). I am a passionate advocate for my community. Amid challenging times like the coronavirus pandemic members struggled to obtain the equipment and services necessary for their health and well-being, fighting against harsh, unfair regulations about what you can and cannot have when you’re affiliated with government-funded programs through Medicaid and Medicare. Then there are the longstanding attitudinal barriers we face, daily reminders that we’ve much work yet to do. Indeed, disability comes with a number of challenges, and there are scores of equally important but vastly different disability issues that need attention. At the Civics League for Disability Rights, an independent, volunteer-led group of New Yorkers with disabilities who advocate for themselves and their community while sharing ideas, tools and information about how to effect change, we continue to address the challenges head on.

Take time to celebrate the ADA

July is a time to reflect, celebrate, and look at what lies ahead for the disability community. The ADA helps remind people that we are here and that our lives matter. Advocates have worked diligently and continue to make strides to improve inclusiveness and accessibility.

This month, the Civics League will be hosting a special ADA Panel Discussion on Monday, July 25, at 2pm, where special guests will discuss their lived experiences, the significance of the ADA, and the outlook of disability rights in America. I welcome all to attend. For more information and to get involved in advocating for disability rights, please email civicsleague@gmail.com.

Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson

Health Home Advocacy Specialist and Licensed Mental Health Counselor

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