Disabilities Act Was Drafted with Uncanny Foresight

by Deborah Kendrick

Editor’s note: The following column appeared in the Columbus Dispatch on July 26, 2015, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Deborah Kendrick is president of the Cincinnati chapter of the NFB of Ohio and a member of the NFB of Ohio Board of Directors. This is what she said:

From coast to coast, in cities large and small, in state capitols and campus conference centers, Americans are celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act today. I’m celebrating too (although tangible plans made long ago have me in a remote location with a few friends, who either don’t know much about this birthday or celebrate another one because they are from the United Kingdom). Like any elder reflecting on a given commemorative date, I’ve been thinking about this day for a long time, and my reflections are fragmented at best.
First, there’s the sparkling memory of the signing ceremony itself. I received two invitations, actually. I made the advocates list by virtue of involvement with a number of grass-roots disability-rights organizations. More thrilling by far, however, was that I made the journalists list. For four years already by July 1990, I had been writing a weekly column on disability rights. Far from being deemed a respectable beat, disability didn’t even make the daily papers much in those days, aside from the sugary heart-wrenching tales of inspiration that regrettably are still alive and well in our media.
I was trying to do something else, something a bit more substantive and tough-minded, and I believe that every once in a while I succeeded. Convincing my editor at the time that the event was sufficiently newsworthy to warrant my covering it was no small feat. The publisher, however, thought I should go. And so I did. And sent back a page-one story. The images vie for center stage in my brain. The gorgeous weather, the palpable energy, the deliciously merged swarm of people with their crutches and canes and wheelchairs, hands flying through the air with American Sign Language, guide dogs sneaking a sniff from a canine colleague under one of the folding chairs.
As President George H.W. Bush spoke of that wall that needed to tumble down, the joy in that crowd on the White House South Lawn was such that it would have surprised none of us had someone begun to fly. The air was redolent with hope and promise and a future shining with true equality for everyone. As euphoric as the occasion was, however, I think now that I really saw it as a gift to my friends who used wheelchairs and scooters. Other than the occasional miscreant who thought my lack of physical eyesight translated as an inability to enjoy or have a right to enjoy the simplest of pleasures, my own life seemed pretty standard issue. I had a job, a young family, a niche in my church and neighborhood. Laws in every state already allowed my guide dog entrance to public transport and facilities. We didn’t have the Internet yet, and my then state-of-the-art technology gave me access to various information databases and facilitated transmission of email messages and other data via phone lines. There were a few audible traffic signals being installed here and there, and, if movies were too visually complex to follow audibly, we were used to poking our friends or family in the ribs with incessant variations of “Hey! What’s happening?” Of course, there was no Braille signage on hotel rooms, offices, or elevators, and, yes, that led to more than one “funny” story involving entering the wrong restroom or sleeping space. But the issues seemed less insurmountable than being excluded from a building altogether due to imposing stairways.
What was most thrilling that day was the spirit of the ADA—the president of the United States saying that none of us should be excluded from what it means to be an American, that attitudes needed to change. Discrimination from my perspective came in the form of a ticket attendant at the Cherokee museum who wouldn’t accept my admission money because I couldn’t see the exhibits or the server who thought my four-year-old should pour my coffee. And it took a delicious turn that July 26 afternoon when a fellow journalist tried to hide his astonishment that I was queued up to get the same quotes he was, rather than as a grateful supplicant. Of course, the foresight written into the law, which made it apply to technological components not yet conceived, is what renders the ADA to people of all mental and physical differences an essential passport to equality in America. Today, accessing a website with needed information is as critical as entering any brick-and-mortar building, and without laws many of us would have no hope of traveling those paths. Today, movies are so complex that, without captioning and audio description, those of us with vision or hearing disabilities would be completely left out of this component of our culture.
The ADA, hailed then as the most comprehensive piece of civil-rights legislation since 1964, was no panacea, but its promise was dazzling. We have a long way to go. I still encounter doubt and disbelief in the company of strangers, people who see me as less-than because I have a disability. I still encounter web sites, touch kiosks, and intersections I can’t navigate. But the promise of the law is alive and well. I celebrate the passage of the ADA, and I celebrate its twenty-fifth birthday. With greater anticipation, however, I celebrate the promise of inclusion yet to come.

Deborah Kendrick is a Cincinnati writer and advocate for people with disabilities.