HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ADA!
Speech Given by Nadina LaSpina
On July 26, 2000
At The City Council Chambers
Happy Birthday, ADA! Ten years old! And it seems like only yesterday! It seems like only yesterday when the ADA was just a dream: “If only we could have a law - stronger and more definitive than 504- a law that said we’re equal citizens...A law that said: the way we’re treated is discrimination and it’s wrong! If only we could have our own civil rights act, our own emancipation proclamation!”
Most people think the ADA came about because of good old American good-heartedness — that’s if they even know there is an ADA. Most people have no idea of the struggle - the work, the activism, and yes the dreaming that went into it. They don’t know that the ADA was the achievement of a social movement: our movement, the disability rights movement. Nothing would have been accomplished without the disability rights perspective of our people as a minority group that has been subject to discrimination and unfair treatment, and without our willingness to take to the streets and risk arrest to bring public attention to our issues.
Of course, there were key players that made the ADA happen. Robert Burgdorf, Justin Dart and the other members of the then National Council on the Handicapped who drafted the bill. Pat Wright who came from California to lobby for it. There were the politicians who helped push the bill along, like Senator Tom Harkin, Ted Kennedy, then Congressman Tony Coehlo, and New York’s own Major Owens who appointed a special congressional task force on ADA.
But what really made the ADA happen was us: the disability community. It was to fight for the ADA that for the first time we really ALL came together: people with all different types of disabilities, people from all walks of life. We all did it in different ways, letter writing, lobbying, demonstrating and even crawling up the steps of the capitol. Do you remember the DC rally March of ‘90 when the ADAPT activists crawled up the 83 marble steps of the capitol building? We all wanted this law so badly! For so many of us such a law had been our own private dream. Now we saw the possibility of the dream becoming a reality. Of our dream becoming the law of the land.
And then the ADA was the law of the land. “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” With those words George Bush signed the ADA while three thousand people with all kinds of disabilities gathered on the White House Lawn to watch and rejoice.
Well, I’ll be honest, the joy was bittersweet for many of us. There was disappointment because the original version of the ADA had been watered down quite a bit, extending compliance dates way into the future, granting business the “undue hardship” excuse. There was worry that the ADA was really a law with no teeth — no strong enforcement mechanism, and largely non funded. Many of us were uncomfortable with the political climate in which the ADA was produced. We were worried that, since now they were supposedly opening the doors of opportunity for us, we’d see even more cuts in social services and entitlement programs.
But in spite of all of that, in spite of the law’s limitations, the ADA did something incredible: it validated our struggle. Here it was carrying the congressional stamp of approval: “Historically, society has tended to isolate and segregate individuals with disabilities... discrimination against individuals with disabilities persists in such critical areas as employment, housing, public accommodations, education, transportation...”( Findings of Congress, Sec.2).
In spite of the disappointment and the worry, we could all identify with Justin Dart when he said: "The ADA is the world's first comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities, a landmark in the history of human development! After thousands of years of rejection every waking hour of every day, we are declared to be equal members of the human race! By the United States of America! My spirit soars! I am a certified American! Alleluia! I’m a human being!"
Now it’s been ten years. The ADA remains what Justin Dart called it then: the most comprehensive, far-reaching civil rights law for people with disabilities in the world. All over the world disabled people look to us, and the ADA has become a symbol of the promise of civil and human rights.
Now it’s been ten years. President Clinton issued a proclamation declaring July 2000 “Spirit of ADA” month. In it he says: “America is now a dramatically different -and better- country because of the ADA.
There has been change, no question about it. We all know that. We all remember the way it used to be.
As a wheelchair user, of course, I’m thrilled every time I see a new ramp, maybe going into some fancy restaurant... BUT as I go up the ramp I have to think what good is this ramp here to my brothers and sisters who are trying to survive on $599 a month of SSI? Or to those who are locked up in nursing homes, mental hospitals and other institutions?
The ADA’s goals — equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self sufficiency — have not been achieved. We’re not even close. Two thirds of our people are still unemployed. Disability discrimination in employment is as rampant as ever but it’s really hard to prove. We lose in court 92% of employment cases. That’s after 87% of cases filed with the EEOC are thrown out and never even get to court. Since the burden of proof is on the person discriminated against, an employer would have to discriminate openly to lose a suit and they’re smarter than that.
What about “independent living”? Last year our community united to support two women with labels of mental retardation and mental illness who were fighting the state of Georgia for freedom from a mental institution, and whose case went to the Supreme Court (Olmstead v. L.C.). The Supreme Court heard us and ruled that unnecessary institutionalization is segregation and is a violation of the ADA integration mandate. It was a big victory for disability rights. But implementation of the Olmstead decision by the states is very slow, and our people remain locked up in institutions.
We need to get MiCASSA (Medicaid Community Attendant Services and Supports Act) passed. MiCASSA would establish a national program of assistant services and supports.
What about “economic self sufficiency?” Our people are among the poorest. Many are at below poverty level, they lack adequate housing, some are homeless. We’re kept poor by discrimination and by outdated policies. Indeed, we are expected to be poor. We’re even required to be poor in order to receive services that are vital to our survival and independence (we can only get personal assistance services if we are poor enough to qualify for Medicaid).
Now it’s been 10 years. The ADA, is still the most comprehensive civil rights law but it is also the most disregarded, the most violated of laws. Nobody just complies with it because it’s the law. We have to file complaints and lawsuits. That’s a very slow process. I’m not just talking about businesses not being in compliance, but state and city governments. Let me ask you, what do you think? Do you think New York City is in full compliance? Do you think this administration has done much to bring it into compliance?
Because the ADA is largely non-funded, state and city governments can cry “unfunded mandate” and delay compliance forever. And business, of course, can claim “undue hardship.” In other words, they’re really telling us that we can have our rights but only if it doesn’t cost them too much.
The National Council on Disability (NCD) just put out a report “Promises to Keep: A Decade of Federal Enforcement of the American with Disabilities Act.” That report says that the federal agencies charged with enforcement of the ADA - like the Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission - are not doing a good enough job of enforcing the ADA. The NCD makes some strong recommendations to those agencies. But they have to hear from us too. Let’s let them know we’re angry. It’s our civil rights they’ve been screwing around with!
The ADA is not only the most disregarded and the most violated but also the most openly attacked of all laws. It’s attacked in the media, attacked in the courts, attacked in congress. Attempts to weaken the ADA are constant. The latest, at the legislative level, is the ADA Notification Act, HR3590, which says we have to give businesses a 90 days notice before we file a complaint. As if it wasn’t bad enough that we can have our rights only if our rights don’t cost too much, now they want to make it so we can have our rights only if we ask pretty please! If you haven’t done it yet, please call your representative and say that we oppose HR3590!
The most serious attack lately has come from states’ rights. This fall the Supreme Court will hear arguments on a states’ rights case: Garrett v. University of Alabama. At issue in that case is whether Congress had the constitutional authority under the fourteenth amendment to enact the ADA. If the court rules against us on this one, it could be a major step on the road to gutting the ADA. We have to let the justices know we won’t allow that. So, on October 3, when the Court session opens, we’ll be in DC, thousands and thousands of us. Mark your calendar - you all have to be there!
The ADA is also the most ridiculed of laws — they don’t make fun of other laws like they make fun of the ADA. They figure we’re fair game, and so is our law. And the ADA is the most misunderstood of laws. After ten years people still don’t get it that it’s a civil rights law. Even the Supreme Court sometimes forgets.
Last year, ruling on three Title I cases, the Supreme Court got stuck on trying to decide if the individuals claiming discrimination were really disabled, disabled enough to use the ADA. As if the ADA was a benefit law, as if the protection of the law was a privilege, as if it was compensation for an unfortunate plight.
Many who insist they support the ADA, put the ADA at the same level as the Jerry Lewis telethon. How long will it be before people understand that we’re not asking for favors, and we’re not asking for privileges, and we’re not asking for pity? We’re asking for civil rights!
It’s been 10 years! But we cannot rest. Don’t you relax even for a minute, just because now there’s a ramp going into your favorite restaurant, and they let you in with your guide dog, and you can use relay to call your friends... We must not rest. We have to keep fighting. Not only do we have to fight to make sure we don’t lose what we worked so hard to achieve, and to make sure the ADA is not weakened in any way, we must also fight with all our strength to make the ADA stronger.
The only way we can have that much strength is if we all unite, like we did when we got this law passed. We must all unite -- all of us with all kinds of disabilities, visible and invisible, as well as those with illnesses and those who don’t even call themselves disabled (like our sisters and brothers who are Deaf and proud, and our sisters and brothers who have had their civil rights stripped away by a psychiatric diagnosis). We must all unite because we’re all discriminated against in the same way and all we’ve got is the ADA! We must fight with the strength that only comes from unity so that the ADA can have the power to deliver on its beautiful, revolutionary promise of equality for all! Our dream has not come true yet! Lets make the promise of the ADA a reality, let’s make the dream come true!