Eighteen years ago, President George H.W. Bush signed into law one of the most consequential pieces of civil rights legislation in recent memory.
In the ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, he said: ”With today's signing of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, every man, woman and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence and freedom.“
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And in large measure, he was right. Those doors have come open. Tens of millions of Americans with disabilities now enjoy rights the rest of us have long taken for granted: the right to use the same streets, theaters, restrooms or offices, and the right to prove themselves in the workplace and succeed on their talent and drive alone.
We all understand why there are curb cuts at every street corner, kneeling buses on our city streets, ramps at movie theaters and accessible restrooms and handicapped parking almost everywhere. By now they've become part of our lives' fabric. And we wouldn't have it any other way because each one is the sign of a pledge: the promise of an America that excludes none of its people from our shared life.
That was the promise of the ADA. But looking back 18 years, the hard truth is that we were, in some ways, too optimistic. The door the first President Bush spoke of is still not entirely open. Every year, millions of us are caught on the wrong side.
In interpreting the ADA, the courts have consistently chipped away at Congress's clear intent — and we know what the law's intent was because we helped write it. Narrow court rulings have excluded millions of Americans from the law's protection.
We said we wanted broad coverage for people with disabilities and people regarded as disabled. But the courts narrowed the coverage with a ”strict and demanding standard,“ a severely restrictive measure that virtually excluded entire classes of people, even though we had specifically mentioned their impairments as objects of the law's protections.
We never expected that people with disabilities who worked to mitigate their conditions would have their efforts held against them. But the courts did exactly that, throwing their cases out on the grounds that they were no longer disabled enough to suffer discrimination. None of that was our intent.
But today, realizing the promise of the ADA is the work of a new coalition. Members of the disability community ready to claim their equal share; representatives from both parties tired of seeing constituents shut out; business leaders eager to unlock new pools of talent-we've all joined forces to create the ADA Amendments Act.
The new law would replace the cramped reading of disability rights with a definition that is broad and fair. It realizes that those who manage to mitigate their disabilities can still be subject to discrimination — and are still entitled to redress. And it understands that those wrongly regarded as having a disability (those with a disfigurement, for instance) can be equally at risk and deserve to be equally protected.
These common-sense adjustments are long overdue.
In the House, the ADA Amendments Act won the support of 402 representatives, with only 17 opposed. We had wished that Congress would pass this bill in time for an anniversary that means so much to millions of Americans with disabilities. And we're hopeful that the Senate will act soon.
Few kinds of discrimination, in all of history, have been more widespread than the exclusion of those with disabilities. But it was America that passed a pioneering law to help end that exclusion. We were the first in the world to do so, the world's model on this central challenge to human rights. Eighteen years later, we cannot afford to fall behind. We hope that the Senate will pass the ADA Amendments Act and that the president will sign it, bringing one step closer the day when the fruits of life in America are at last available to all.