Last week the disability community celebrated the signing of one of the more important pieces of legislation in our country’s history. Twenty-three years ago I had the privilege of being at the White House and witnessing the signing of the ADA. July 26th was a memorable day, the culmination of years of work by countless numbers of people with the collective mission to increase opportunities experienced by persons with disabilities.
Looking back, I knew it was an important event and had the potential to be life altering. At the time of the ADA signing, 14 years had passed since I joined the family of 53 million persons with a disability; I incurred a traumatic SCI which resulted in significant paralysis, and a power wheelchair. And yes, I was now on the receiving side of the stares of condescension, unfair treatment, and pangs of discriminatory judgments on numerous occasions. For me, this new civil rights law represented a new perspective: the promise of equal opportunity, full participation, a chance at living independently, and being economically self-sufficient. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the ADA would change attitudes. Labor Secretary Perez said it so well yesterday: The ADA has changed the way we think about people with disabilities. No longer were there whispers of “what’s a guy in a wheelchair doing here” but instead I could reasonably expect a ramped entrance; after all, accessibility is a civil right.
In July 1990, I had been working with the NARIC project for about 8 years. NARIC is one of many NIDRR projects and has provided me the good fortune to be in the midst of a progressive agency fully embracing and advancing the spirit of the ADA. Being a part of NIDRR’s mission to expand society’s capacity to provide full opportunities and accommodations for millions of persons with disabilities has been an especially rewarding endeavor. Since the ADA signing NIDRR has funded extensive research on the impact of the ADA and other disability-focused legislation such as the Rehab Act and IDEA, with more people with disabilities pursuing full participation in education, employment, and community life. Research and development from the NIDRR community has resulted in new technology, treatment, and interventions which increase access and participation for people with disabilities across the lifespan. Their research ensures people like me can work, play, and live in communities of choice. Playing a part in this community has been a pleasure and a privilege; I look forward to the next 23 years!