Today is a beautiful summer day in Washington, and it was a similarly sunny day on the South Lawn of the White House 20 years ago today, July 26, 1990. That day, hundreds of Americans came pouring through the gates to celebrate--some in wheelchairs, some blind, some deaf, you name it. They were there to witness President George H.W. Bush’s signing of the sweeping Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which ended discrimination against 43 million Americans and changed their lives forever.
The ADA was the first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities--ever, in the world--and many nations soon followed President Bush’s lead and enacted similar legislation. The curb cuts, automatic doors, braille signs, “kneeling” buses and handicapped parking spaces that we take for granted now were not a part of American life before then. In fact, there’s a whole generation of teenagers, born in the years since that summer day in 1990, who have no idea what it used to be like. Millions of people joined the mainstream of American life that morning, and not long after many were able to attend public schools for the first time, get jobs for the first time, even just go to movie theaters for the first time. Think of all the people you know whose lives would be very different today had that bill not become law 20 years ago.
And think of all the changes in American life since then--namely, the technologies that allow disabled people to connect wirelessly to the economic and political mainstream. Instead of packing up the wheelchair and going to the Post Office to mail the bills, they can bank online; instead of using a TDD device on the phone, they can use sign language on a video chat with relatives. Most importantly, they can work from their homes. There are many more examples, and while the population of disabled people is growing, so is their ability to live independent lives.
In his remarks, President Bush linked the rising tide of freedom around the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall to this wave of freedom and independence for disabled Americans:
Today, America welcomes into the mainstream of life all of our fellow citizens with disabilities. We embrace you for your abilities and for your disabilities, for our similarities and indeed for our differences, for your past courage and your future dreams. Last year, we celebrated a victory of international freedom. Even the strongest person couldn't scale the Berlin Wall to gain the elusive promise of independence that lay just beyond. And so, together we rejoiced when that barrier fell.
And now I sign legislation which takes a sledgehammer to another wall, one which has for too many generations separated Americans with disabilities from the freedom they could glimpse, but not grasp. Once again, we rejoice as this barrier falls for claiming together we will not accept, we will not excuse, we will not tolerate discrimination in America.
And so the “shameful wall of exclusion,” as he called it, came tumbling down in America. But as clear as it is now that it was the right thing to do, it’s wasn’t a slam dunk at the time. There was a lot of controversy in the beginning: it was first sponsored by Democrats—Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. Tony Coehlo--and some Republicans and business groups were concerned the law was too burdensome. After a lot of hard work by President Bush himself working on compromises, in the end it enjoyed broad bipartisan support. In fact, it finally passed with over 90 percent of both House members and Senators voting to support it. I can’t help but ask: If that controversial vote were held today, do you think would it end up passing by such wide bipartisan margins? Or would it more likely get filibustered? [See who supports Harkin.]