July is an historical month in the history of America. The country celebrates two great birthdays. The first is the 4th of July. No country throws a birthday party like America. We celebrate from the Atlantic to the Pacific. We celebrate from the northern borders of the U.S. and Canada to the Southern borders of the U.S. and Mexico. The world celebrates with us.
The second great birthday is the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I was there when President George H. Walker Bush signed the Act on July 26, 1990. I was seated between former U.S. Senators George Mitchell (D-ME) and Bob Dole (R-KS). They were proud of the bipartisanship effort in writing and passing the bill. They were proud of the leadership the White House exhibited in providing input and getting the Act passed.
I have been to the White House many times over my 38 years in Washington, DC and it is always exciting to visit. But never have I felt so exhilarated and seen so much exhilaration by thousands of people then at the White House signing of the ADA. Just as the signing of the Declaration of Independence started a revolution, I believed that I was witnessing a revolution.
The ADA was a universal victory. I know that friends with disabilities living in England, Germany, Russia, China, Chile, Greece, Spain, Ireland, and other countries told me they wanted their countries to pass similar legislation and enforce it. “Passing the law and not enforcing it exacerbate the conditions they were passed to correct," an Irish advocate told me. So true. So true!
For 232 years, the federal government had has the largest role in protecting and expanding the rights of its citizens. When it has abandoned this role, as it did in failing to protect the lives and cultures of the Native Americans, when it failed to protect Hispanic Americans, when racial apartheid against African Americans reigned in the South, and the federal government permitted it, and when women could not vote, our country was weakened and our principles of America as a human rights’ country mocked the very laws of equality for every citizen that we profess to cherish.
Eighteen years after the signing of the ADA, the law needs to be updated and strictly enforced. Passing the ADA Restoration Act will improve the law, but if the law is not enforced, it is meaningless.
The Bush Administration’s lack of enforcement of the ADA and other civil rights laws has made civil rights’ laws worthless. The number of unemployed people with disabilities in this country is an international disgrace. The failure of the Federal Government to be a model employer in hiring people with disabilities disrespects people with disabilities, the people who worked on the law and former President Bush.
We are a nation that turns its back on the millions of qualified people with disabilities by importing foreign workers when we have qualified workers with disabilities here. Importing foreign talent is expensive. The money spent on the search can be better spent here. Employers may even save money by looking here.
The private sector mainly is the blame for employment discrimination against people with disabilities. Despite all that is known about the abilities of people with disabilities, millions of people remain unemployed. With a sluggish economy, those figures are unlikely to change.
Unlike many people working in the disability movement, I never believed the ADA would end employment discrimination against people with disabilities in 10, 20 or 30 years. Each new generation still produces bigots, and people with disabilities in their struggles to achieve equality will be battling bigots for decades and maybe centuries.
The Declaration of Independence laid the foundation to improving the fortunes of people, regardless of a person’s disability. The ADA should expand these fortunes of opportunities for people with disabilities. At 18, the ADA is a teenager who still has a long way to go to reach maturity. A new administration, with strong public support, dedicated to enforcing employment laws for people with disabilities can help the ADA become a mature adult.