This Thursday will mark the 22nd anniversary of the signing into law of The Americans with Disabilities Act. As the Wikipedia entry notes, the passage of the ADA is every bit as meaningful as The Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it comes to protecting the rights of individuals against discrimination in American society.
At the end of last week, a northern California newspaper, Times-Standard, published the first (at least that we could find) of what will be many pieces in observance of the ADA’s anniversary. “Americans with Disabilities Act has bettered nation” was written by Chris Jones, executive director of Tri-County Independent Living in Eureka, California, and the reasons she enumerates in her op-ed are as straightforward as its title. After several specific examples of ways the ADA has benefited people with disabilities, she makes this observation:
It is important to recognize the positive impacts of the ADA not just on persons with disabilities, their family members and caregivers, but on society as a whole. It has encouraged us to look at people for their abilities, rather than their disabilities. It has helped us see the many contributions persons with disabilities make to our community every day.
Indeed, with one out of every five citizens falling under the definition of an American with a disability, it’s hard to fathom how our country could function without accommodating their needs in our workforce or educational system; or how less profitable businesses would be without the $1 trillion in discretionary income this population represents.
Twenty-two years is not so long a time in historical terms, however. As Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) points out in his Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions report, Unfinished Business: Making Employment of People with Disabilities a National Priority (found here in PDF format), the passage of the ADA and its predecessor, the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), have spawned “The ADA Generation.” This is a first-of-its-kind incarnation of young people who have grown up in a society that has worked to provide access to education, transportation, telecommunication, and environmental accommodations that level the playing field for individuals with disabilities.
Those who have had the means to fully utilize the opportunities offered today no longer consider themselves apart from society; except when it comes to jobs. “Being employed has important fiscal, psychological, physiological, societal, and even spiritual benefits,” Harkin’s report notes. “These benefits have eluded the vast majority of people with disabilities.”
However you observe the upcoming anniversary of the ADA, keep the progress of career training, vocational rehabilitation, contract services, and other programs that foment the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workforce in your meditations. That is ultimately what will make life matter for these individuals.