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Americans with Disabilities Act at 20: A Nation Transformed

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The Americans with Disabilities Act -- signed into law on July 26, 1990 -- has been described as the Emancipation Proclamation for people with disabilities. It sets four goals for people with disabilities: equal opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency.

But at its heart, the ADA is simple. In the words of one activist, this landmark law is about securing for people with disabilities the most fundamental of rights: "the right to live in the world." It ensures they can go places and do things that other Americans take for granted.

I will always remember a young Iowan named Danette Crawford. In 1990, she was just 14. She used a wheelchair, and lived with great pain. But she campaigned hard for the ADA. When I told her that the ADA would mean better educational opportunities, and prevent workplace discrimination, Danette said: "Those things are very important. But, you know, what I really want to do is just be able to go out and buy a pair of shoes like anybody else."

Two decades later, people with disabilities can do that -- and so much more. The ADA has changed America in ways largely invisible to most citizens, but profoundly transformative for tens of millions of Americans with disabilities.

How soon we forget the pre-ADA America. In hearings before passing the law, we heard heartbreaking testimony about the obstacles and discrimination that people with disabilities faced in their daily lives. We heard stories of Americans who had to crawl on their hands and knees to go up a flight of stairs, or to gain access to their local swimming pool; who couldn't ride on a bus because there wasn't a lift; who couldn't go to concerts or ballgames because there was no accessible seating; who couldn't cross the street in wheelchairs because there were no curb cuts. In short, we heard thousands of stories about people denied the right "to live in the world."

ADA passage was a bipartisan effort. As chief sponsor in the Senate, I worked closely with both sides of the aisle. We received invaluable support from President George H.W. Bush and key members of his administration, especially Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. The final Senate vote, 91 to 6, sent a resounding message that this nation would no longer tolerate isolation and second-class citizenship for people with disabilities.

In the ensuing years, we have seen amazing progress. Streets, buildings, sports arenas and transportation systems are now more accessible for people with physical impairments. Information is offered in alternative formats, usable by people with visual or hearing impairments. New technologies for people with disabilities continue to be developed.

Thanks to ADA employment provisions, those with disabilities are able to get reasonable accommodations on the job, like assistive technology, or accessible work environments, or more flexible schedules.

Just as important, we have seen a big change in attitudes. Our expectation is that we do what it takes to give individuals with disabilities not just physical access, but equal opportunity in our schools, in our workplaces, in all areas of our economy and society.

Every individual with a disability deserves a chance "to live in the world" -- to hold a job, start a business, pay taxes and reside with family or in the community.

Despite the great progress, our work is far from complete. For example, millions of people with disabilities - including young people -- are housed in institutional settings like nursing homes. With appropriate community-based services and supports, they can have the option of living with family and friends -- not strangers. The new health reform law makes some progress on this, but we need to do even more.

When he signed the ADA into law, Bush spoke with great eloquence: "Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down." Twenty years later, that wall is indeed falling.

The ADA has broken down barriers, created opportunities and transformed lives. Today, we recognize that people with disabilities -- like all people -- have unique abilities, talents and aptitudes. Our nation is better, fairer and richer when we make full use of those gifts.

The ADA is America at its very, very best.

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