05/09/2014 02:20 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2014

The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement

Last summer, I sat with disability advocates across a table from America's first black president. It was a moment I never thought I'd experience in my own lifetime.

In July, our country celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most sweeping civil rights legislation since the Emancipation Proclamation 100 years earlier. The legislation culminated decades of struggle by civil rights activists in a movement that's now deeply embedded in the fabric of our national story. JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were my generation's role models. They fought (and died) for democracy, equal opportunity and social justice. Their message was hopeful, their successes visible.

When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he said these words:

Those who founded our country knew that freedom--not only for independence, but for personal liberty and justice -- would be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning. Americans of every race and color have died in battle to protect that freedom, and to build a nation of widening opportunities. Now our generation of Americans has been called on to continue the unending search for justice. We have come to a time of testing and we must not fail.

Those words are as true today as they were a half century ago. But today, the fight is for equal opportunity for all 56 million Americans with disabilities. Because in truth, disability is a part of the human condition, something most of us will experience in our lifetimes. It's part of the beauty of a diverse and democratic society, in which everyone has something to contribute. And just as people of any race, gender, or sexual orientation participate in all aspects of civic life, all people with disabilities deserve the opportunity to go to school, to theater, to church, and to work.

While this concept of disability as a strength is not foreign to most of us in the disability rights movement, most Americans still view disability as an impairment, to be cured, feared, or "risen above." If impairment prevents effective functioning in the world, the argument goes, until one is "cured," one cannot expect equality. Common fears and misperceptions like that were aptly captured by Thurgood Marshall, who in 1985, just prior to the ADA wrote:

In regard to disabled Americans, much has changed in recent years, but people still experience irrational fears or ignorance, traceable to the prolonged social and cultural isolation of the disabled... stymieing recognition of their dignity and individuality.

And in years prior, when Eleanor Roosevelt was asked how her husband won so many victories on behalf of a just society despite his disability, she replied that he succeeded because of his disability.

If we understand and even value disability as a part of the human condition, then it's obvious that it is society's obligation -- and not those with disabilities -- to ensure what President George HW Bush called for when he signed the ADA in 1990, "that all should have the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream."

The Civil Rights Act paved the way for the ADA and a host of other important civil rights victories for the disability movement, the most recent of which require affirmative hiring of people with disabilities by federal contractors. There are so many important reasons why employers and society as a whole, will benefit from this rule change. Corporate America will harness the creativity, talent and problem solving abilities of people who spend their lives navigating a world that wasn't built for them. Taxpayers will save when a whole segment of the population goes to work rather than consuming public benefits. And people with disabilities will realize the dignity and financial self-sufficiency that comes with gainful employment.

All of this is true, and serves as an important reminder that hiring people with disabilities is not about charity, nor about setting a lower standard of performance, nor even about taking any greater risk than with any other hire.

But, let's also not forget the call to action issued by Lyndon Johnson as he signed the Civil Rights Act a half century ago. He asked, "every public official, every religious leader, every business and professional and every working man, to bring justice and a deep respect for human dignity to all our people."