In 1990, Congress passed and president George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. Twenty-five years later, as many across the United States celebrate a quarter century of progress, we should pause to appreciate milestones and confront new obstacles.
In sweeping rhetoric, the ADA’s preamble declares, “historically, society has tended to isolate and segregate individuals with disabilities, and, despite some improvements, such forms of discrimination against individuals with disabilities continue to be a serious and pervasive social problem,” noting that the scale of discrimination permeates such diverse daily activities as housing, education, communication, labor, health services and transportation, among others.
To address these challenges, the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by state and local governments and by entities that provide public accommodations, such as movie theaters and restaurants. Taken together, the ADA and other federal laws — including the Air Carrier Act, Fair Housing Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Rehabilitation Act — have generated a legal environment in which many people with physical and mental disabilities have access to legal protections and safeguards when discrimination does occur.
Yet the ADA’s impact goes far beyond any legal provisions codified in Title 42 of the United States Code. What stands out as truly remarkable is the level of social consciousness of disability generated by a single act of Congress. For well over two centuries, disability rights were traditionally confined to intellectual models advocating the provision of welfare or medical services — a model that reinforced societal prejudices and ostracized potential beneficiaries. Only in the last 50 years, amid mounting pressure from the disabled community, have prevailing understandings of disability shifted toward a positive-rights model — one in which individuals retain certain agencies and dignities because of their status as human beings.
Materially, this shift has wrought powerful consequences. As a legally blind American, I have inherited the ADA’s protections since birth. When I entered the public education system, my parents were unsure about how I would adjust. How do you teach a child who cannot see the board? How is a child who cannot navigate the classroom by himself going to learn? What would be the fate of a child who has every reason, every excuse, to fail? In response, my parents embraced every means — including the law — to ensure that I had the tools and accommodations necessary to excel. I was given enlarged papers, a seat at the front of the room and other safeguards that ensured me a fair chance to master the material and demonstrate my knowledge.
In sharp contrast, my grandfather was born in the ebb of a twilight peace between the two World Wars. Back then, India was still controlled by the British Raj, and subsistence agriculture governed the pace of life in his small village. During the 1960s, he made the long journey to the United States, trained as a pharmacist and practiced for more than 40 years in Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital. In nearly eight decades, he has given little thought to disability law or the ADA — until last month, when back surgery left him bedridden for two weeks with months of rehabilitation to come. Now, as he walks cautiously with a cane, the ADA’s modifications appear everywhere: wheelchair ramps alongside stairs, grab bars in bathrooms, accessible parking spaces at the local drug store. Unlike me, my grandfather did not reap the ADA’s protections from childhood. He inherited them later in life.
Occasionally, my grandfather and I walk together in the evening with our canes in hand — mine for identification, his for support. A generation separates us, but we benefit in different ways from a single law. These are the ADA’s great powers: a cradle-to-grave protection when physical and mental impairments arise, and a society conscious of difference across ability.
The ADA serves as a gold standard in national legislation to secure the civil rights of those with disabilities. Around the globe, however, other nations remain trapped in the past. Disabled people are still marginalized and mistreated. Over the next 25 years, each of us must act as ambassadors for progress. As students of a global campus, we hail from every continent and are educated for an interconnected world. So the next time you travel, ask how your grandfather might navigate the surroundings, and raise your voice for inclusion and accessibility.
Paras Shah is a UC Berkeley alumnus and a former staff writer for the Daily Californian. He interned for the Disability Rights Section at the U.S. Department of Justice and will join the International Disability Rights Team at Human Rights Watch this Fall as a John Gardner Fellow.
A previous version of this op-ed stated that George W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. In fact, it was George H.W. Bush who signed the act into law.