Valuing the Ideals Behind the ADA
December 6, 2018
Like many, the author has spent countless hours over the last few days reading about the life and legacy of George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States. Much has been said of his leadership, humor, compassion, and patriotism, not to mention the accomplishments that many of us have forgotten over the course of the last several decades. Presiding over the end of the cold war and helping to free Kuwait from occupation are perhaps the most well-known examples. Tellingly, in a style that is almost alien to us now, he seemed keen to defer taking any personal credit. Bush mentioned that his mother taught him to avoid “the great I am”; to talk not about personal accomplishments, but rather to focus on what “we” can do. While this is a digression of sorts, it speaks to the heart of the topic here today.
Legislation is not as well remembered as events, and certainly not legislation that is a directive about how the federal government will view individuals with disabilities. We don’t think about it much now as it has become integrated into our lives, but at the time it was groundbreaking and huge in scope. Americans have become accustomed to everything the Americans With Disability Act (ADA) provides in society (from handicapped parking, to braille, to wheelchair ramps) and at work (where employers cannot discriminate based on disability, must provide reasonable accommodations, and must protect classes of individuals who have illnesses, deficits, or limitations), without thinking about what life was like before ADA existed.
This author, who has mild physical impairments, was caught off guard during a recent trip to western Europe (visiting undoubtedly progressive and modern societies) to find relatively few areas one could access by wheelchair, few handicapped parking spaces, and a lack of other seemingly basic things that would assist those with limitations function more effectively. Some attractions and museums would have been off limits to someone with physical deficits. The point is not to judge (after all, some of the buildings were over 1000 years old and not very amenable to modification), but to highlight how much ADA was forward thinking and remains rather unique.
The author is an admitted pragmatist, with a tendency to view idealism as something that works nicely on paper but rarely translates to success in the real world. As often happens, life provides examples that highlight how high-level ideas and execution of realistic goals are inextricably linked.
We started with a discussion of George H.W. Bush for a reason. Whether or not one agreed with his politics or worldview, it seems apparent that he was a man guided by ideals and strove to do what he thought was best for others, a point that has been reiterated by everyone from friends to political rivals. His passion for the proper treatment and inclusion of those with disabilities was evident, and his devotion to the cause that was brought to his desk, that later became the ADA, was unwavering. To quote one of the architects of the bill, Lex Frieden, in a recent interview with NPR:
The ADA was a profound piece of legislation. It covered every aspect of social and economic life. It changed the landscape of America. And I attribute that to President Bush, his leadership. He could have compromised at any point in time, and each time he refused to move. He said it’s a matter of principle. (https://www.npr.org/2018/12/03/672817727/remembering-george-h-w-bush-a-champion-for-people-with-disabilities)
At the signing of the bill, it was stated that the bill would “let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” The architects of ADA emphasized inclusion, breaking down barriers, and allowing everyone to live his or her life at the highest level. ADA has protections, of course, but at its core, is about what one can do, not what one can’t do.
The key principals of the ADA and the intent of the architects echo in the work many of us do each day, as we strive to help individuals achieve success. There are often “walls of exclusion” due to illness, external forces, or even self-imposed limitations due to lack of confidence. These cannot and should not define who we are, so long as we are. If guided by principals and informed by the knowledge that doing what is right is rarely easy, but always worthwhile, we can truly help people achieve their highest potential.