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Observing the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

The demonstrations that have gripped the country over the summer are reminders of other protests that preceded them, many of which have led to transformative change. Although small in size and barely recognized by the media at the time it occurred, one of the more effective such protests took place in March 1990 and became known as the “Capitol Crawl.” Some 1,000 activists had gone to Washington, DC, to urge the passing of legislation that would address discrimination against persons with disabilities. But it was the 60 or so protestors who, after climbing out of their wheelchairs and tossing aside their crutches, began the arduous process of crawling up the 83 steps of the U.S. Capitol, that captured the attention of Congress.

Four months later, on July 26, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act, now marking its 30th anniversary. It banned discrimination against persons with disabilities and required reasonable accommodations in public buildings, on transportation, in employment, and in other areas of public life. Speaking at the White House that day, President Bush proclaimed, “Together, we must remove the physical barriers we have created and the social barriers that we have accepted. For ours will never be a truly prosperous nation until all within it prosper.”

 “The Americans with Disabilities Act presents us all with an historic opportunity,” said President Bush’s official statement commemorating the passage and signing of the Act. “It signals the end to the unjustified segregation and exclusion of persons with disabilities from the mainstream of American life. As the Declaration of Independence has been a beacon for people all over the world seeking freedom, it is my hope that the Americans with Disabilities Act will likewise come to be a model for the choices and opportunities of future generations around the world.”

Today the impact of the ADA is visible throughout the built environment, in ways that many take for granted: in the cutouts at street corners, elevators with Braille buttons, ramps at building entrances, closed captioning on videos, and grab bars in bathrooms, to name only a few. For those who are physically disabled, these accommodations make them more mobile, although barriers remain for them as well as for those who have cognitive or other impairments that impede their ability to navigate their way through daily life. Indeed, “disability” under the ADA is defined broadly, with respect to an individual, as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.” The ADA went beyond those who are born with disability by providing protection for those who may experience temporary disability, as many people do. This intentionally far-reaching definition was aimed at fulfilling what the ADA called the nation’s proper goal of assuring “equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for such individuals.”

An estimated 61 million adults in the United States – one in four adults – live with a disability, according to the CDC, making them one of the largest minority groups in the country. “If the ADA means anything, it means that people with disabilities will no longer be out of sight and out of mind,” said Arlene Mayerson with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, writing in 1992. “The ADA is based on a basic presumption that people with disabilities want to work and are capable of working, want to be members of their communities and are capable of being members of their communities, and that exclusion and segregation cannot be tolerated. Accommodating a person with a disability is no longer a matter of charity but instead a basic issue of civil rights.”

IREM has consistently spoken to and supported this “basic presumption” on which the ADA rests. This can be seen on page 45 of IREM’s Statement of Policy on legislative issues, which “heartily endorses an end to discrimination against individuals with disabilities.” It can found in the IREM Code of Professional Ethics article on equal opportunity, to which all IREM members subscribe.

And it is embedded in IREM’s recently released commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion that says clearly: “We recognize that strength comes from diversity. We value differences and provide an equal opportunity environment for members, vendors, and staff. We welcome individuals of all races, ages, genders, gender identities, sexual orientations, creeds, national origins, and individuals with disabilities, and we take great pride in how our members, chapters, and staff uplift their communities through diversity initiatives. We stand with our members, partners, employees, and communities as we all work to understand and overcome injustices.”

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