Toward the end of July in 1990, I was a twenty-one-year-old recent college graduate who was struggling to find my place in the world. I had picked the college that I had attended based on the compact campus, and because, at the time, it was known as one of the universities in the country that had a national reputation for being accessible and accommodating for those with disabilities.
I had spent the previous six weeks working as a counselor at a camp for people with disabilities and found the environment to be rewarding in many ways. First, it enabled me to help people, which always comforts my soul. Secondly, I was able to mentor several kids with disabilities, and it did my heart good to think there was a chance that they wouldn’t have to experience struggles with the same intensity that I did growing up, because an adult with a disability had been there, and was able to let them know things were going to be okay. I will never know for certain if my presence made a difference to those kids, but since I never had a mentor when I was very young, my hope is that my being there was valuable to them.
The other thing that impressed me about camp was that it was designed for people with disabilities. There were wider doorways, accessible showers, ramps and lower tables. There was even a swing on the property that you could put someone using a wheelchair on. At the time, I thought my surroundings were infinitely cool.
When my employment at camp ended, I returned to my parent’s house for the rest of the summer. Like most places I had been, even where my family lived was not set up to accommodate my disability as much as it could have been. Like always, I modified the way I did things because of my cerebral palsy.
After I had been at my parent’s house for about a week, I saw an interesting story on the news one night. George Bush Sr. had signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act, civil rights legislation that said that places of public accommodation had to be accessible for those with disabilities. In addition, it meant that, among other things, employers could not refuse to hire a job applicant solely on the basis of disability. I watched a video of President Bush as he wrote his signature that day, and after he had finished he said: “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”
I must admit, at first, I didn’t really understand. I thought that those who were going to discriminate against people with disabilities would always discriminate. I didn’t think that a specific law on the books would really make a difference.
A few days later it hit me. This law meant that, with rare exception, everywhere that I went in public would be set up like the camp that I worked at had been. Sweet!
In the twenty-four years since July 26th, 1990, I have to say that in some ways I was right, that there are still some people that don’t want to include those of us with disabilities. That is a matter of mindset which will not be changed just because of the existence of a federal law. However, gone are the days when I have to be carried into places because there is no accessible entrance. And people who are blind no longer have to have a menu read to them when they go into a restaurant.
What does the Americans with Disabilities Act mean to me as a person with a disability? It means that I retain my dignity while I enjoy access to the same public places that everyone without a physical disability gets to enjoy. To me, that means everything. I remember feeling the devastation and the hollow alone-ness that I experienced every time I was excluded from going into a place because of circumstances that were totally outside of my control. It made me feel unwanted, and like there was something wrong with me as a person somehow. I felt this isolation routinely, and I never want to experience it again.
Another huge difference that I have seen over the years is the change in society’s attitude toward people with disabilities as a whole. In the last twenty-four years, there has been a generation of people born who don’t know anything different than inclusion, and see that inclusion as a part of society simply because that is the way that it has always been. Sweet!
A few weeks ago, the public library in Lawrence, Kansas had its reopening. For the last year and a half, the library had been housed in a different location, while the original building was being remodeled. There was much anticipation around the community about how it would look when it was finished.
I went a few days after the reopening to see how it was for myself. It was fantastic! The whole thing was completely open. At the entrance, there are big painted pillars with comments from supporters of the library stenciled all over them. There were reading nooks with big pillows for the kids and meeting spaces of various sizes everywhere, it seemed. The movie and music sections were clearly labeled and the thousands of books were set up so that they would be easy to find. The computer lab was amazing and the art sculptures were impressive. People were there reading, writing in journals and utilizing media in all kinds of ways. The atmosphere was both warm and welcoming and totally made me want to visit the library on a regular basis. And I plan to do so.
When did the reopening of the library occur, completely renovated and ready for the public? It happened on July 26th, the same day that people with disabilities in the rest of the country were celebrating the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
I thought that was both ironic and appropriate. Both events give people in society a chance to expand their minds. Sweet!