Celebrating the ADA with Respect for Everyone’s Story
This year, the Americans with Disabilities Act turns 25. Signed into law on July 26, 1990, for two-and-a-half decades now the ADA has worked to restructure the ways in which America treats its citizens with disabilities. Whether an individual’s disability is physical, mental, emotional, or intellectual, that individual nonetheless deserves the opportunity to live his or her best life, and the ADA finally made that right a government mandate. Prior to the ADA, many disabled people were cut off from their communities in such significant ways that they often couldn’t overcome them and instead lived with a lack of education, health care, and community outside of what their own family provided. The ADA was a crucial first step in changing that reality.
Of course, the ADA may legally outlaw discrimination in terms of access to employment, government and other public services, and transportation, but putting its requirements into practice can be tricky and costly. Although they shouldn’t, some people still use that as an excuse not to conform to the law or to do so in way that only fulfills the minimum requirements. In addition, there are areas of life that cannot be legislated. Everyone knows that it’s wrong to take handicapped parking spaces and you can get fined for it. But what about making jokes at the expense of people with disabilities? It isn’t funny to them when they have trouble carrying bags out of the grocery store or can’t get into a building without a ramp. A lack of courtesy towards disabled people is unacceptable. You should not sigh loudly as you move to accommodate a person in a wheelchair at a movie theater or pretend not to see the person on crutches walking towards you on the sidewalk. These actions are small but noticeable, and they upset both the people they are aimed at and their caregivers, who are working hard to make sure that their loved ones are comfortable and happy.
It shouldn’t be complicated to have some common sense and compassion for those with disabilities and their caregivers. They must contend with daily struggles that many of us know nothing about, and they do it all without a break. In cases of a severe disability, the caregiver not only attends to their loved one’s needs such as feeding, dressing, bathing, and toileting, but also serves as an advocate in the community, making sure that their loved one is treated kindly and respectfully. Often, the caregiver must fight for access to better education, medical care, and recreational activities, and once their loved one becomes an adult, that fight starts all over again because many programs are geared towards children who eventually age out of them.
Perhaps, as we celebrate the ADA’s 25th anniversary, we can take a cue from actress and comedian Amy Poehler. On Saturday Night Live, Poehler once told a joke about a movie called Hurricane Mary whose plot revolved around twin sisters with cerebral palsy. Unbeknownst to her, the movie was based on real sisters, one of whom was watching that night. For five years, Poehler felt guilty and uncomfortable about the joke and unsure of what to do about it. Then finally through a friend she reached out to the people she had hurt: Marianne and Chris Cooper, whose son Jesse had died due to complications from cerebral palsy and who had written and starred in the movie, respectively, and the sisters themselves, Anastasia and Alba Somoza. Anastasia was gracious and welcoming enough to forgive Poehler, writing her a long letter and welcoming her as part of the effort to educate the public so that fewer others would be made fun of as Anastasia had been. Poehler has since been vocal about how wrong she was, how sorry she is, and how she is trying to do better in the future, and society at large may be more receptive to that message than ever before. Finally we have actors like RJ Mitte, the man with cerebral palsy who starred as Walter White Jr. on Breaking Bad, and models like Jamie Brewer, who has Down Syndrome and still walked the runway at New York Fashion Week, representing themselves in public. It’s a move in the right direction that is only possible thanks to the ADA and the millions of people with disabilities and their advocates, who have dedicated themselves to the work of developing a more inclusive America.