Dot Nary: It’s Disability Pride Month — Here’s why we should all celebrate July 26 (Column)

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Did you know that discrimination based on appearance was legal in some places in the U.S. until the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed? Here is some history behind passage of the ADA, signed into law 31 years ago on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush. 

In 1988, 19-year-old Lisa Carl wanted to see a movie with friends at her local theater in Tacoma, Washington. However, the owner refused to admit her to the theater, saying later, “I don’t want her in here and I don’t have to let her in.” He noted that she had difficulty speaking and moving around. Lisa, a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, described her experience to U.S. senators the next year when she testified in support of the ADA. “I was not crying outside but I was crying inside. I just wanted to be able to watch the movie like everyone else,” she said. 

This incident, related in Joe Shapiro’s powerful 1993 account of the disability rights movement titled “No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement,” is sad but not unusual.

Judy Heumann, the internationally renowned disability rights activist featured at KU’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of the ADA last fall, related a similar experience in her own ADA testimony. At age 22, she was asked to leave an auction house with another wheelchair user after being told they were “disgusting to look at.”

My husband, who is short-statured, was told after earning his bachelor’s degree that he was the most qualified candidate for a social service position. However, the hiring manager said he could not hire him because “we don’t think the public would accept you.” 

If I were to solicit stories from Lawrence residents regarding their experiences with disability-related discrimination, both overt and subtle, I could fill a notebook. Of course, appearance, or the way that people look, move about, communicate, etc., is just one of the many reasons that disabled people experience discrimination. Still, as a person with a congenital disability — a condition I was born with — I find these examples hurtful. Cutting remarks and rejection, particularly of young adults as they are finding their way in the world and asserting their independence, leave a lasting impact. 

When I was gradually losing my ability to walk as a young adult and struggling to maintain my balance, both physically and emotionally, I was accused of being drunk or on drugs by numerous people, including a beloved high school teacher. Though my experience isn’t the same as the deliberate exclusion that occurred in the previous examples, the lack of understanding and jump to criticize were painful blows to my self-esteem. 

The previous examples emphasize this point: None of these denials of participation — the right to simply be present — violated the law at the time they occurred. Pre-ADA, it was legal for people with disabilities to be excluded from public places or even from employment based on their appearance. 

The practice of lawful discrimination and segregation based on disability began in the U.S. in the 19th century. For example, in San Francisco in 1867, a law was passed making it illegal for “any person, who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, to expose himself or herself to public view.” These laws often intermingled ableism, racism, and a desire to keep impoverished people and beggars out of public view. But their aim was to restrict the rights of people who looked “different,” and these were often people with some type of disability. As late as the 1970’s, there were “ugly” laws still on the books in a few U.S. communities that denied the right of people with disabilities to be in public spaces.

Although the ADA is often misperceived as a narrow law focused on ramps, automatic door openers, and other physical accommodations, it is actually far-reaching legislation modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin — but it failed to address disability in its list of protected statuses. The goal of the ADA is to “level the playing field” so that the estimated 1 in 4 adults with disabilities can participate equally in American society. That includes the right to be in public spaces. 

The ADA protects the rights of people with disabilities in employment, public services (provided by governments), public accommodations (such as restaurants, hotels, and theaters), and telecommunications (such as the internet). It covers people of any age with physical, sensory, intellectual, learning, or emotional disabilities, visible or invisible, as well as people with a history of disability (such as a person who has recovered from cancer but may be discriminated against in employment), and people who are regarded as having a disability (such as a person with a facial disfigurement that does not limit their ability to function but is likely to elicit discrimination due to appearance. This might be a veteran who has sustained injuries from an improvised explosive device, or IED).

So, in the examples given above, the ADA now protects the right of people with disabilities to visit a movie theater or auction house or other public place and specifies physical accessibility requirements for those facilities, such as accessible parking, entrances, and restrooms. It protects the right of qualified people with disabilities to access to the same job opportunities and benefits in the workplace as nondisabled people – without any judgment regarding how others, such as the public or coworkers, will respond. It entitles disabled employees to reasonable accommodations to enable them to perform work duties, such as the services of a sign language interpreter. It protects the right of blind people to have websites built to be fully accessible; and it protects the right of people with any type of disability to use public transportation. These are just a few examples of the far-reaching impact of the ADA in creating a society where everyone can participate. 

Is the ADA perfect? Of course not, no legislation is. Getting this law passed required compromises. As a concession to the insurance industry, for example, the ADA permits health insurers to deny coverage based on disability. Fortunately, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) addressed this problem by making it illegal to deny coverage based on preexisting conditions. This made it possible for many Americans who do not obtain coverage through employers or are ineligible for Medicaid to purchase health insurance as individuals despite having a disability or chronic health condition. We all probably know someone like this.

Another difficulty with the ADA is enforcement, as it is with all civil rights laws. We are fortunate that in Lawrence the ADA accessibility requirements for the built environment are promoted by a city government that takes this responsibility seriously. But enforcement of other aspects of the ADA are more complex. Suffice it to say that there is no “ADA police” and that we all have some responsibility for complying with the law, advocating for compliance, and educating the community. Given that disability is a common human experience and that anyone can become disabled at any time, it makes sense to use the ADA to create accessible, welcoming communities that accommodate everyone. 

Because the ADA was signed into law in July, this month is celebrated as Disability Pride Month. But how can we celebrate and honor the ADA, not just one month of the year but every day? Perhaps one of the most important things we can do is to embrace and respect differences, whether they are due to disability, race, ethnicity, LGBTQ+ status, religion, socioeconomic status, etc.  That would both fulfill the vision of the ADA and contribute to creating the type of community where all can thrive. But, as we work toward this goal, let’s celebrate the anniversary of the ADA as a landmark civil rights law that protects the right of people with disabilities to be seen and to be fully participating members of our community.  

— Dot Nary is a disability activist, researcher, educator, and lover of animals. She grew up on the East Coast and still misses the ocean but loves the beauty of the prairie. Read more of her writing for the Times here.

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