07/25/2014 05:19 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2014

The ADA at 24: Honoring the Unsung Heroes

For most college students, the Americans with Disabilities Act has been the law of the land their entire lives. They've grown up with sidewalks that dip at the corners to make it easier for wheelchairs, crutches and canes to navigate. They've grown up with closed captioning on television, and Braille on elevators and directional signs. They've grown up in 'mainstream' schools, with accommodations for students with different abilities. This all must seem very normal -- almost unnoticeable -- to anyone born after the ADA was signed into law on July 26, 1990. But the road to get to this point was a long one, paved by men and women who most have never heard of, but without their efforts many of our fellow Americans would not enjoy the lives they now lead.

Let me share a little about two of these pioneers. Both worked tirelessly to help students who are deaf and hard of hearing achieve a college education and a better life. Both had deeply personal experiences that shaped their worlds and motivated them to help others. And both passed away this week -- one day apart, and just days from the ADA's 24th anniversary.

Robert F. Panara was a writer, poet, educator and founder of the National Theater of the Deaf. In 1967, long before the ADA would become law, he became the first deaf faculty member at a first-of-its-kind college--the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, located on the campus of the university I am proud to lead, Rochester Institute of Technology. Bob Panara taught English to deaf students and established the first drama program at the college, which continues today in the theater that bears his name, providing performances in both spoken English and American Sign Language to ensure full accessibility to deaf and hearing audience members. He inspired students for more than 45 years. He was 94 years old when he died on July 20, but continues to live on through his poetry, his stories and his dreams of a world where hearing and deaf live in harmony.

Dr. E Ross Stuckless was in many ways responsible for helping to make the case for the existence of NTID, through his 1963 study that showed that deaf individuals were not getting adequate training and were generally under-employed. This study contributed to the surge of interest and concern in Congress and the then-Department of Health, Education and Welfare that helped lead to NTID's founding. Stuckless would join Panara in 1967 and became the first hearing member of the NTID faculty. His innate ability to envision how technology could benefit deaf and hard-of-hearing college students led to breakthroughs such as speech-to-text technology that now are used throughout the world. He was 80 when he died the day after Panara, on July 21.

The path that Bob Panara, Ross Stuckless and other pioneers in equal opportunities for students with disabilities forged led to the implementation of the ADA.

We know that the work still continues. Most recently there have been cases brought against universities that refused to provide access for deaf medical students. There are still too many barriers to mobility in everyday life. There are still lapses in access for blind students and citizens to gain access to information.

But how proud Bob and Ross must have been the day the ADA was signed into law to know that their work helped bring about this legislation that would change millions of lives.

How proud we are to have known them, learned from them and to have been inspired by them. Their work and their memories live on as we teach the next generation of leaders who will continue making their vision of a fully accessible world a reality.