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Learning to Love the ADA

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In 2001 I went to work for former U.S. Senator Max Cleland who lost three limbs in Vietnam after a grenade exploded in his hand. Before getting to know Max, I had given little thought to the Americans with Disabilities Act which ensures "equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, State and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation." After traveling with him across the state of Georgia it was clear to me how important the ADA is.

I had done plenty of logistical planning for President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore before heading to Georgia, but planning trips for Senator Cleland required thinking through things in an entirely different way. Hotels built before the ADA tended to have smaller doorways that made pushing through in a wheelchair almost impossible; bathtubs without handles complicated bathing without assistance; and sidewalks without indented ramps were a challenge. Even in an ADA hotel room, staff often put furniture in the hallway such as a chair or credenza that reduced the extra space to pass.

As his most senior African American campaign staffer, I would often accompany Senator Cleland to black churches on Sundays, many of which were quite old. After a couple of bad experiences earlier in his life, Max was loathe to ride in the rinky-dink chair lifts that many old buildings use to get someone from one floor to the next without an elevator. Sometimes, the advance staff had to round up a few strapping fellows to physically lift the chair to the next floor. There were other small indignities that will remain unspoken, but imagine how much worse it was when Max began running for office in the 1970s.

There are so many other ways that the ADA has improved lives. In adition to wheelchair ramps on public buildings; elevators have numbers written in Braille for the blind; schools provide educational services for the disabled that did not previously exist; and so much more.

Sometimes businesses complain about the costs of compliance, but anyone who has a family member, friend or colleague whose life is made easier by these developments can attest to their value. We should celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act as an American triumph that enables all of us to participate to our full potential in our national life.