On this 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we honor and celebrate its profound impact on our society while also recognizing that the promise of this groundbreaking civil rights law has yet to be fully realized. Our hope is to both celebrate the achievements and advocate for even greater change.
The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, education, public accommodations, and government services, guaranteeing equal access to individuals with disabilities. While the ADA’s guarantee of equal access is to both physical environments and programmatic offerings, the greatest achievements to date under the ADA have been around physical access, allowing generations of people with disabilities to experience life more fully through access to physical spaces that were largely unavailable to them before the law passed in 1990. For example, thanks to ramps, elevators, curb cuts, warning surfaces near curbs, roads, or water, and accessible parking spaces and restrooms, people with disabilities can independently shop at grocery stores, ride public transportation, go to movie theaters and sporting events, and most importantly to us, get inside school buildings.
All Americans, not just those living with disabilities, have reason to be thankful for the ADA’s removal of physical barriers, which have improved the quality of life for everyone. Ramps and curb cuts are critical for people in wheelchairs, but they also help parents pushing strollers and anyone who uses a wagon to carry supplies to the beach or to a park. Warning surfaces, with their distinct bumps and bright colors, allow people with visual impairments to safely navigate streets that were completely inaccessible to them before the ADA, but they also provide safety assurance for young children and elderly individuals.
While not as vast, there have also been significant improvements in the removal of programmatic barriers. Closed captioning, text-to-speech, and voice control technology have allowed people with vision and hearing impairments to access video, audio, and digital content more easily. These improvements, like the physical ones, benefit more than just those with disabilities. People who are easily distracted benefit from closed captioning, as does anyone stuck in a waiting room or business lobby watching the TV or monitor. Text-to-speech has led to significant safety enhancements for all smartphone users, and voice control features, like Siri, have created incredible conveniences in daily life for everyone.
As an organization committed to promoting equity for all learners, we are focused on the ADA’s impact on public education. Here again, the ADA’s greatest impact has been in the removal of physical barriers. Numerous advances in building and classroom designs, such as ramps, elevators, and adaptable desks and equipment, have enabled several generations of students with physical disabilities to attend and participate in classes.
Schools have also made some advances to address programmatic barriers. Assistive technology devices, such as hearing aids and text-to-speech devices, allow students with vision and hearing impairments to engage in lessons alongside their classmates. Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices, and providing instruction on how to use them, enable students who are non-verbal to find their voice and communicate in class and with their peers. While learning disabilities are not as visible as physical disabilities, the ADA has provided students with disabilities like dyslexia and dysgraphia greater access to education through the use of individualized instructional practices and targeted interventions based on each student’s unique needs.
Despite all the progress made over the past 33 years, significant challenges still exist in realizing the ADA’s promise of equal access in public education. In far too many situations, schools consider the ADA to be a “physical access” law rather than a civil rights law intended to achieve full integration of students with disabilities into all aspects of school programming. Physical access to buildings is prioritized, while equal programmatic access is not. Far too often, we hear of situations where students with disabilities are excluded from enrichment activities like orchestra or visual arts because of scheduling conflicts with interventions. We encounter district policies that restrict public school choice options only to those students whose disabilities “aren’t too expensive.” These limitations shortchange students and fly in the face of the ADA’s promise.
Even as we celebrate the advancements that have occurred over the past 33 years, it is important to continue to push for more complete access for students with disabilities. As new funding to improve facilities becomes available, like COVID recovery funds, districts should use those funds to promote and incorporate Universal Design principles to create school environments that all can use comfortably, efficiently, and independently, with the same prioritization of now-typical physical accessibility features. After all, accommodations for students with disabilities contribute to environments that are more welcoming and inclusive of everyone. Educators should prioritize the expanded and consistent use of individualized instructional practices and targeted interventions to support the academic growth of their students with disabilities. Schools should develop schedules “designed from the margins,” ensuring interventions for students with disabilities don’t conflict with enrichment classes. Districts should ensure that their public school choice programs can meet the needs of students with disabilities who choose them.
The ADA’s anniversary is an important reminder that we have tremendous opportunities for further advancement towards meaningful inclusion through technology, collaborative efforts, and intentional planning. Today, we celebrate the unique talents and contributions of students and individuals with disabilities and honor those who have worked to make our society more equitable and inclusive. A truly inclusive world includes all of us!