July 26, 2020

From Jobs to Voting Booths, Accessibility Should be the Default in America | Opinion

Source: Newsweek


Three decades ago, a thousand activists crowded together in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, demanding that Congress finally give Americans with disabilities the basic rights the Constitution promised.

Dozens of them got out of their wheelchairs, set down their crutches and crawled up the 83 stone steps of the Capitol. Jennifer Keelan, an eight-year-old with cerebral palsy, pulled herself to the top of those steps, telling those around her: "I'll take all night if I have to."

It's thanks to the strength of people like Jennifer that the logjam in Congress was broken, and that thirty years ago today, the Americans with Disabilities Act was finally enshrined into law, helping Americans with disabilities lead the full lives we deserve. It's thanks to the sheer willpower shown by those activists that the two of us can now roll through the Capitol's corridors to cast our votes in the Senate and House chambers.

This landmark civil rights law helped topple societal barriers and shift thinking to allow one's disability to be a part of their greater story instead of their principal narrative. However, we often forget that the road to the ADA's enactment was a sustained and hard-fought battle for disability rights, decades in the making.

People with disabilities have faced discrimination throughout recorded history, including by forced institutionalization, sterilization and exclusion. As the civil rights movement gained traction in the 1960s, the disability rights movement grew with it. Activists like Ed Roberts, Marca Bristo and Justin Dart, Jr., raised disability awareness across the nation, and their efforts culminated when those protestors crawled up those 83 stone steps, making the barriers they faced on a daily basis so obvious that the legislators inside that Capitol Building could no longer afford to ignore them. Thanks to the work of the disability community, including the efforts of leaders like Senator Tom Harkin, Senator Bob Dole, Congressman Major Owens, Congressman Tony Coelho, Congressman Steny Hoyer, and Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner and his beloved wife Cheryl Sensenbrenner, President George H.W. Bush finally signed the ADA into law on July 26, 1990.

With passage of the ADA, the law recognized for the first time that people with disabilities have the right to learn, work and live in their communities without discrimination. The ADA broke down barriers by helping ensure that people with disabilities could participate in the activities that the rest of society took for granted. In the three decades since, a generation has grown up attending the same schools as their neighbors, going to the same movie theaters as their friends and eating at the same restaurants as their colleagues, as curb cuts, ramps, automatic doors and reasonable accommodations have become increasingly commonplace.

However, barriers to full community living remain regrettably pervasive. The unemployment rate for those with disabilities is more than twice that for those without, while transportation systems are still difficult—if not flat-out impossible—for many of us to navigate. Affordable, accessible housing remains scarce, and without guaranteed health care coverage, medical treatment, particularly for cognitive and behavioral health conditions, can still be difficult to obtain.

Additionally, barriers to private, independent voting are widespread. According to a 2017 report by the Government Accountability Office, only 17 percent of the more than 150 polling places examined in the 2016 elections were free from potential barriers to voting. And even as we celebrated Independence Day just a few short weeks ago, we will never live up to the promises of our founding doctrine until every American can exercise their Constitutional right to vote, including being able to physically access a ballot box, then see, mark, understand and check a ballot without the assistance of another in order to ensure their right to select the candidates of their choice, independently and free from judgment or question. But as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the country in the lead-up to November's elections, barriers to accessible voting are only expected to increase—so any elected official who believes that those of us in wheelchairs, or who use crutches, or who have any other number of disabilities deserve the right to make our voices heard just as much as any other American, must support immediately providing resources to state and local governments to ensure safe, credible, private and independent voting.

We have made great progress in the last 30 years, but we haven't gone nearly far enough. In the year 2020, we still shouldn't face a reality where so many Americans can't get to work or are denied a job in the first place—can't ride a bus with their child or go to the grocery store two doors down. And the reality is, every American is just one bad day away from becoming disabled. It's past time that our nation's laws and attitudes reflect that, safeguarding every American's constitutionally-enshrined rights rather than punishing the very people whom our nation has discriminated against for so long.

So, as we celebrate this milestone this week, let's work toward reaching a new one as well. Fighting to ensure that in next three decades, accessibility will become the default, not an afterthought or an inconvenience. Fighting so that we can achieve full participation and representation. Fighting as hard as we can today to bring about a tomorrow where we won't need to fight so hard just to live our daily lives.

Tammy Duckworth served in the Reserve Forces for 23 years before retiring at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In 2004, while deployed to Iraq as an Army pilot, she lost both of her legs when her Black Hawk helicopter was hit by an RPG. She currently represents Illinois in the United States Senate.

Jim Langevin is the first quadriplegic to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and is co-chair of the House Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus. At the age of sixteen he was paralyzed by an accidental gun discharge. He currently represents Rhode Island's Second Congressional District.

By:  U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth and Rep. Jim Langevin