As America celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), are we better off as a community because of it?

By Albert J. Rizzi, M.Ed.

Happy Anniversary to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which was enacted 30 years ago July 26, 1990!

I don’t know about you, but for me, I like to look back at all that I have accomplished when I come to a milestone in my life. It’s a good time to take measure of both my successes and failures. Taking into consideration my shortfalls in achieving my goals, I often look to adjust my strategies in order to turn my failures into successes allowing for continued growth both personally and professionally. So, as we celebrate this milestone in American history and as people who care deeply about and are most affected by this legislation, we must reflect on the intentions of achieving authentic inclusion of Ability in both our social and corporate cultures, realigning and refocusing our collective efforts on ensuring that people of ALL abilities are able to not just survive, but thrive as Americans.

President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law way back in 1990. At its signing, he forthrightly said, “Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” The law mandated that all areas of public life including transportation, public forums, workplaces, and academia be accessible and usable to anyone who has a disability.

In days past and for far too many centuries before the ADA, our community was institutionalized, segregated, marginalized, and disenfranchised. We were ‘dis’-labeled as “crippled”, “handicapped”, “dumb”, “retarded”, or otherwise “disabled”. I have said this before, but people cannot be disabled since disabling something is removing the life force or power necessary to engage and be able to move and or operate. For thousands of years, people who happened to have a disability were forced to create workarounds and invent creative ways to simply enter a building let alone feel like valued members of our families and communities. There weren’t any legal obligations, mandates, or requirements for any academic institution or business entity to intentionally include people with disabilities in our schools, our workforce, or even in our homes. Building on the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the passage of the ADA gave new hope and meaning for the inclusion of Ability alongside Race, Gender, Orientation and Religion all across our great nation.

What most people have lost sight of is how far-reaching and inclusive the intentions of the ADA were meant to be. The ADA was not just about governing physical barrier-free access to public forums like buildings, it was about promoting independence, dignity, and opening doors for people who happened to have a disability and desirous of living the American Dream. It told the world that people who have disabilities should be valued and appreciated, worthy of the same access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as befitting and afforded to non-disabled Americans living in the United States.

Motivated by his constituency, and his brother who just happened to be deaf, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa became the legislation’s creator and main sponsor in the United States Senate. He heralded the ADA as the “Emancipation Proclamation” for Americans with disabilities and together with others, positioned the ADA as a first of its kind and became the global beacon of hope. Opening doors for authentic inclusion for tens of millions of Americans and 1.4 billion people around the world, who happen to have a disability.

The pillars upon which the ADA stands are full participation, equal opportunity, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency. It is the economic self-sufficiency that has been the greatest failure of the ADA in my opinion and in the opinion of Senator Harkin.

In an interview celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the ADA with WebAble TV, Harkin said, “We’ve come a long way in some areas.” He pointed to the strides that were made for full participation and equal opportunity. However, he said there was work that still needed to be done in the areas of independent living and economic self-sufficiency.

Harkin noted that we still have significant systemic institutional biases toward independent living and gainful employment. He also said, “We need more effort to ensure that all people with disabilities can live where they want, with whom they want, in their homes in their communities with supportive services, and not be placed in a nursing home”.

Senator Harkin also pointed out that more significant work needed to be done in order to promote and ensure economic self-sufficiency. Specifically, in the journey toward barrier-free access and inclusion to employment that allowed for career advancement and growth. He said the fact that 60 percent of adults who have a disability are out of the workforce was a “blot on our national character.” He added the imperative for the future should be competitive integrated employment for people who have disabilities instead of sub-minimum wage jobs.

The ADA was a promising beginning in 1990. However, from its start, businesses and various industries tried to water down the ADA and weaken its standards. Over these last three decades, many have tried to attack it, saying it was impractical, not workable, or too expensive. Instead of helping people do what they could to make sure that ALL citizens have access to the American Dream, it was easier for them to tear it down. It was easier for them to prevent progress and stay bogged down in antiquated myths and misperceptions about a community of people numbering nearly 62 million in the United States today.

I agree with Senator Harkin and share his disappointment with the ADA. I said as much during my interview with WebAble TV celebrating its 25th Anniversary. One thing that may have contributed to this horrific failure for authentic inclusion was how to counter and overcome hundreds of years of systemic ignorance and antiquated perspectives on Ability. Right now, even in the digital age of the 21st century, nearly 80% of all digital platforms of all shapes and sizes are not accessible, usable, or functional to those Americans with a print disability. While their brick and mortar forums are accessible, the websites and mobile apps of the world still prove impossible to navigate and use.

Thirty years ago, the internet and virtual worlds were science fiction. Virtual storefronts and shopping venues were non-existent, and the disability community was never even considered as a consumer group worth marketing to. Today, the disability community has a global population larger than the entire country of China. When we take into account our friends and family numbering 2.3 billion with a combined discretionary spending power of over $8 trillion it just makes good business sense to re-assess digital equity, authentic inclusion and embrace the largest minority group in the world as valued and appreciated consumers and candidates for employment.

In the year 2020 people of all ages and walks of life are using the internet and digital communication to conduct business, attend school, shop, socialize and, thanks to COVID-19, work. Yet nearly 62 million Americans are barred from doing all of this on equal footing with our nondisabled peers, colleagues, and friends. Organizations are doing business in a digital world and they should have made these things accessible from the get-go.

As we reflect on the significant impact that the ADA has had on many areas like access to public forums and transportation, we must also reflect on what has not worked and what hopes were not realized under this life changing legislation. Across the net, all websites, apps, and digital offerings must nonnegotiably comply with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and our nation’s federal regulations.

It would also help, tremendously if all federal digital offerings, websites, mobile apps, and digitized communications offered at all levels of government were also compliant with the law. Unfortunately, most of the digital offerings of federal and state agencies get a failing grade when it comes to digital equity and authentic inclusion. How can our government expect corporate America to deliver usable and functional digital offerings when our state and federal offerings do not comply with the very laws they put in place? Far too many federal and state agencies digital offerings are not usable or functional, nor are most of any of our academic institutions or the job boards and postings used to find employment.

Hell, even after overcoming all these digital hurdles, a person with a print disability who is able to navigate academia to garner the knowledge to qualify for a position within an industry of their choosing. Even after taking frustrating and daunting steps to apply for a job, there are no guarantees that once hired the individual will be able to perform their responsibilities due to the simple fact that software programs are not coded properly to allow a person with a disability to do so. Businesses of the world as well as academic institutions must not turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to digital equity and inclusion.

It is the 21st century and we are all having to reconsider what is going to be the new norm. There is no better time than now to advance awareness of the real need to ensure that our software programs and digital offerings are usable and functional to all people. Remote (work-from-home) employment is most likely going to increase significantly and we cannot, we absolutely cannot, overlook how properly coded digital communications and offerings will only serve to open doors of hope and opportunity for all of us, but none more so then those of us from the disability community. By simply promising to maximize the functionality of all technologies we could move millions of people off entitlement programs and public assistance, allowing us, to stop being taxing dependents and instead become independent taxpayers.

Much as our nation had to learn how to be inclusive and accepting of Race, Gender, Orientation and Religion, we must also be inclusive and accepting of Ability. What a wonderful gift this would be to the millions of people who now have a disability. It will also be a gift to those who are “temporarily able” to enjoy when you eventually join the disability community, as you inevitably age into it.

As I’ve said many times before, I am an optimistic realist. While I hope it will happen organically and automatically, I know in my heart that it won’t without dedicated people and advocates like myself working to convince society and corporate America to make digital equity and authentic inclusion a non-negotiable consideration. Unfortunately, it will not come without a struggle with organizations and people who won’t join us because of the misconception that complying with this or the other federal laws can be much too difficult or expensive.

My Blind Spot works every day to realize the vision of an inclusive America that Senator Harkin had wanted and hoped for. An America where people of ALL abilities live to their fullest potential, not with a handout, but with a hand up that embraces digital equity and true inclusion universally. The ADA is but a steppingstone to greater things ahead, and who knows, maybe one day we will have a president who is loud and proud of being a member of the disability community. Digital compliance is but one way to ensure that all people, including Americans with a disability, can rise to greatness and enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. MBS was founded on the principals and spirit of the ADA to guide and advise governmental agencies, corporations, academic institutions, and community-based organizations to not just meet compliance guidelines and best practices but exceed them. We will not stop until that day comes.