Katherine Ott, curator in the American History Museum’s Division of Medicine and Science, explains the civil rights significance of the 25-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act and previews some of the events and programs the museum plans to mark the anniversary of its passage.
Activist Justin Dart, Jr. called it a “commandment.” Some people think of it as a tangle of regulations, standards and guidelines. Above all, it is a powerful and official statement on human rights and dignity. This landmark legislation ─ the Americans with Disabilities Act ─ turns 25 this month.
President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA in front of hundreds of people on the South Lawn of the White House in 1990. In his speech that day, President Bush hoped that the law would break down “the shameful walls of exclusion” that people with disabilities encountered throughout their lives. The ADA’s purpose was to make discrimination illegal by prohibiting employers from disqualifying people who had a disability from jobs and requiring them to provide reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities. In the first year of its existence, 12,000 people used it to file discrimination complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
There is much to celebrate about what has been achieved over the years even as the pursuit of equality and civil rights for people with disabilities continues. The struggle for rights dates back many decades and is shared by many groups. The Fourteenth Amendment, intended to guarantee the rights of former slaves, contained the phrase “equal protection of the laws” and has been the consistent legal tool for citizens seeking equality and equity since it was ratified in 1868. Citizens, acting through the United States Congress and the states, have made many laws and policies related to disability rights, including Social Security (1935), Randolph-Sheppard (1936), Hill-Burton (1946), Medicare and Medicaid (1965), the Architectural Barriers Act (1968), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Individuals with Disabilities Act (1975, originally), the Fair Housing Act (1988) and many more. The greatest of these in sweep, impact and empowerment is the ADA.
In 1986, the National Organization on Disability commissioned a Louis Harris opinion poll that captured the widespread discrimination and misunderstanding about disability in the United States. Few people with disabilities had employment or sufficient income for basic needs; most did not feel included in American social life, nor did they have a sense of pride or shared identity about themselves. This was despite many decades and numerous laws designed to end discrimination.
Not surprisingly, in the first few years after the law took effect, businesses, schools and other public entities scrambled to figure out what had to be done to bring new and existing environments into compliance. There was a lot of (often heated) discussion and many lawsuits around building ramps, replacing hi-pile carpeting, adding accessible door handles and flashing alarm lights, changing the way job descriptions were written, installing Braille signage, providing captions on TV shows, and making elevators talk. Editorial writers expounded on how to get a young girl included in the school band, taking a service animal into a theater or on a trip to Hawaii, and whether a golfer could use a motorized cart during tournaments. Working out the meaning of “reasonable accommodation” reshaped urban landscapes and relationships among people.
The American History Museum is planning three days of special events to mark the anniversary of the ADA. In partnership with the Kennedy Center and the VSA, the international organization on arts and disability, the Smithsonian will host Festival ADA: 25 Years of Disability Rights, highlighting the impact and significance of the ADA.
An important part of the festivities is the museum’s ADA display, opening July 20. In deciding how to best tell the story of this important history into a small showcase, we decided to point to four aspects—the damage done to people when there is no legal protection, how government did the right thing in passing the ADA, the need for active citizens, and some gains that have come from the law—by exploring the lives of four people: Junius Wilson, Justin Dart, Jr., Lois Curtis and Cyndi Jones.
Black and deaf, Junius Wilson was 28 years old when he was jailed and charged with assault with intent to rape in 1925. He was declared insane and sent to North Carolina’s mental hospital for blacks. Then he was castrated. Decades later, the charges were dropped, but Mr. Wilson remained in a locked ward for 68 years.
Justin Dart, Jr., who contracted polio as a child, was a tireless advocate for disability rights and spent much of his career in government and politics, behind-the-scenes and in front of the mic. He is regarded by many as the “Godfather of the ADA.”
With the ADA on her side, Lois Curtis (along with Elaine Wilson) sued the state of Georgia to be released from an institution, winning a victory for herself and thousands of others.The Supreme Court affirmed that individuals with a mental or physical disability can not be forced to remain in an institutional environment if they can be served in a more integrated, community-based setting.
Disability rights activist Cyndi Jones, one-time literal “poster child” for the March of Dimes, has fought stigmatizing language, attitudes and regulations as a magazine publisher and now as a minister.
In addition to the showcase, the museum will host a series of films; a performance by Mat Fraser of his original piece, “Cabinet of Curiosity: How Disability Was Kept in a Box“; the opening of a disability history archive of historical materials; a special U.S. Postal Service stamp cancellation in honor of the anniversary; a visit from the ADA Legacy Bus and museum that have been traveling around the country; a symposium about Latino/as and disability, and a festival of disability culture on the museum’s terraces with many of the people who were part of the fight for ADA passage. The festival also includes demonstrations of technology, gaming, art, dance, and displays of accessible way finding, transportation, and more. There will also be lots of blog posts and other social media (especially Twitter) with information and reports.
A version of this post was originally published by the American History Museum’s blog, O Say Can You See? Katherine Ott has also blogged about “universal design” and her online exhibition focusing on disability history.
Posted: 9 July 2015