It is hard to get a handle on what the Americans with Disabilities Act has accomplished and meant to disabled Americans for the last 25 years. As a disabled person myself, I have been trying to think of a way to sum up the ADA’s importance.
Pretty much everyone in the disability community celebrates the ADA, but it’s a very glass half full / glass half empty thing for us. How each of us evaluates the ADA says as much about our own personalities and individual experiences than about the law itself. Unfortunately there aren’t many objective measures of the ADA's success or failure. How do we assess the value of the ADA? Has it really made much of a difference?
Maybe we should ask, “What would America be like today, if the ADA had not become law in 1990?"
Set aside the very strong possibility that an ADA of some kind would have passed eventually, in 1995 or maybe 2000. Let’s suppose instead that after failing to pass in 1990, the whole idea of a civil rights law to cover disabled Americans falls out of favor entirely.
Here are 9 ways America would be different today, without the ADA:
1. Most buildings of all kinds built after 1992 would have unnecessary barriers like narrow doorways and steps at entrances. Facilities and features for disabled people would be rare, separate, hidden from view, and hard to find.
2. Disabled people would only venture out into the community or travel for bare essentials. Most recreational places like restaurants, theaters, stadiums, hotels and motels would lack accessibility restrooms, restricting disabled people to only the briefest visits.
3. Sidewalk curb ramps would be rare, and wheelchair users riding in the street would be a major local irritant issue, similar to cars vs. bikes.
4. A handful of colleges and universities would be known for their accessibility and accommodation practices, and disabled people would have to go to them or not go to college at all. A few very expensive private colleges would probably be founded just for students with specific kinds of disabilities.
5. Virtually all disability activism would consist of groups representing specific disabilities lobbying for very targeted benefits and privileges, plus individuals raising money to pay for personal needs. The concept of “disability rights” would be viewed abstractly, discussed mainly by theorists and academics but unfamiliar to most disabled people.
6. There would be huge opportunity and participation gaps between disabled people with some wealth, who could pay for their own accommodations in workplaces and other areas, and those too poor to do so.
7. Far fewer disabled people would even attempt to get jobs, since they would be told quite plainly that they are not being hired because of their disabilities. Mentally ill people would find it almost impossible to get jobs of any kind, as employers would regularly and legally probe into whether applicants had any mental health histories.
8. Elderly people would move into nursing homes and similar facilities sooner and in much higher numbers, due in part to less accessible communities, and also because of the lack of any meaningful commitment to the principals of “most integrated setting."
9. Very few buses trains, or subways would be wheelchair accessible, mostly in the biggest cities and on a handful of the busiest routes. Accessible, affordable public transportation in rural areas would not exist, apart from a few vans operated irregularly by disability non-profits, nursing homes, and churches.
What do you think would be different today without the ADA? Join a Twitter hashtag … #AmericaWithoutADA