Peter Thornburgh suffered a brain injury in 1960, when he was just 4 months old. At that time, our country was not very hospitable to people with disabilities. By the time 2-year-old Kenneth Fine was diagnosed with autism in 1996, much had changed.
In the 1960s, there was little in the law to help people with disabilities meet their full potential and participate as active members of our society. The 1970s brought the Rehabilitation Act, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act--IDEA) and the Developmentally Disabled Assistance and Bill of Rights Act. Those laws were limited, both by the topics they addressed and the people or entities they regulated.
Societal views were not much better. During the decade in which considerable attention was focused on civil rights for so many Americans, Peter's mother had to confront a school principal who justified placing students with mental retardation in a dank cellar because "they don't care." The 1970s and 1980s did not see much improvement. People who used wheelchairs were denied access to far too many places by easily correctable barriers such as high curbs and too-narrow doors. People who were hard of hearing or deaf were excluded from the most basic of public services, including the 911 emergency telephone service so helpful to others. Despite the ease of adding Braille instructions, people with visual impairments all too often confronted bank machines and elevator controls that were unusable to them. Hundreds of similar examples describe a society that, if not hostile to the needs of people with disabilities, was certainly ignorant and apathetic to those needs.
It was against this backdrop that on July 26, 1990, President George Bush gathered 3,000 Americans on the lawn of the White House to watch him sign into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and to hear him proclaim: "Let the shameful walls of exclusion come tumbling down." Within a year of that sun-drenched signing ceremony, the Justice Department wrote and published extensive regulations to flesh out the requirements of the law.
High hopes for ADA
The ADA was and is the most comprehensive legislation ever to address the rights and needs of those who face the challenges of disability. It prohibited discrimination based on disability in employment; in government programs and services; in public transportation; in communication and in places of public accommodation such as department stores, amusement parks, theaters and airliners. The ADA aimed high: not only to prohibit discrimination but to require employers, government offices, public transit, and businesses open to the public to take reasonable, and usually minimal, steps to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities. On the day the ADA was enacted, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin called the new law the "20th Century Emancipation Proclamation," and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch predicted that "America will be a better place because of the action we have taken."
Was Senator Hatch correct? Undeniably. Has the ADA so far lived up to the ambitious hopes of its drafters and supporters? The answer is, as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in a recent opinion interpreting part of that law, "a qualified yes."
There are innumerable examples of the ADA's success:
* A person who uses a wheelchair can now participate fully in the deliberations of the city council in Waukesha, Wisconsin, after the city agreed to hold all of the council's deliberations in an accessible room.
* A great many more fans of country singer Hank Williams, Sr., will be able to visit his childhood home in Georgianna, Alabama, after that city agreed to remove architectural barriers that prevented wheelchair access. * As a result of the settlement of an ADA complaint, the Houston, Texas police will provide their officers with training to more effectively communicate with witnesses, victims, and suspected criminals who have hearing difficulties. …