Op-ed: Today’s Congress lacks the resolve that created Americans with Disabilities Act

First Published      Last Updated Dec 29 2016 01:09 pm

Last month marked the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a watershed moment in our nation's history. We call the United States the "land of opportunity," but we often question whether opportunities are truly available to everyone.

In 1990, people with disabilities were in the spotlight for facing barriers to equal participation. When President Bush signed the ADA in 1990, he said, "Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down," a remark that both acknowledged the shame of the problem and noted the ADA as the solution.

Utah's Sen. Orrin Hatch joined other legislators, including former Sens. Tom Harkin and Bob Dole, and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, to draft this landmark civil rights law. We often forget that disability issues are civil rights issues, and that persons with disabilities face a subtle yet very real and damaging kind of discrimination.

While prejudice and fear underscore most forms of discrimination, ironically, misguided sympathy drives discrimination against disabled persons. This discrimination occurs when, for some unfounded reason, those with disabilities are labeled as having "special" needs that are assumed to be better met at "special" schools. When asking for inclusion, those of us who are disabled are offered pity, and somehow, we are shamed when we turn it down.

Thankfully, with the passage of ADA, legislators managed to see beyond this paradigm. They saw that people with disabilities were struggling to find gainful employment but knew it was because of the limitations projected onto applicants by discriminatory hiring practices. They saw that people with disabilities were unable to enter buildings or use public transit, and knew that it was because of antiquated designs to buildings and buses. They then drafted a bill to right those wrongs, which ultimately brought about meaningful change.

We now live in the "post-ADA world," where few people even notice curb cuts. In fact, parents with strollers and travelers with luggage depend on those conveniences. We no longer question if blind children could attend a public school — they can, they should, and they do. And we are seeing the fruits of the ADA when we travel, work, and socialize alongside what is known as the "ADA Generation"— the young people who have come of age since the ADA's passage, who know the world only as a place where discrimination is intolerable.

I live in the post-ADA world, but I am not of the ADA Generation. I grew up in Dubai, where there was nothing available for people with disabilities — no accommodations, and certainly no mainstream access. After years of just getting by, I came to Utah for college. Nineteen years later, I do more than enjoy the benefits of the ADA; I help write them. In 2012, the President appointed me to serve on the Access Board, a federal agency tasked with writing standards applicable to many of the ADA's provisions.

But as society changes, new problems arise for people with disabilities, and warped forms of discrimination persist. I am a father of two young daughters, and I cringe when I hear about other blind parents losing custody solely because someone assumed they were too disabled to parent. Technology has transformed the teaching and learning process, and yet every day, blind students drop out of college solely because the technology that should have made life easier for them was designed without their needs in mind. Although countless legislators have considered bills to counter this discrimination, many of their colleagues have decided not to support the initiatives.

This proves one of the most remarkable things of all, which is that Hatch is part of a dying breed. He and the other authors of the ADA saw a need for change and took it. People with disabilities were a population lost, until the ADA allowed them to be found. We are being lost again, and few legislators are left with the courage to make it right.

It's time for a new generation of lawmakers to learn from the examples of their predecessors and take a stand for disability rights. I thank Hatch for his leadership, and I appreciate the United States for giving me the opportunities so beautifully afforded by the ADA. But there is more we can do to protect the disabled against discrimination. I am unashamed of my blindness. I will walk into the accessible halls of Congress and demand that something done until our legislators act.

Sachin Pavithran is the chairman of the U.S. Access Board and a disability policy analyst at Utah State University.