Twenty-five short years ago, the United States Capitol had no wheelchair ramps. You read that right. The monument that pretty much defines American equality and justice was inaccessible to people using wheelchairs.
In 1990, activists in Washington, D.C. struggled out of their wheelchairs and crawled up the Capitol steps to urge lawmakers to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Capitol Crawl and other demonstrations across the country were modeled on tactics used in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and they helped push legislators to pass the ADA on July 26, 1990 — 25 years ago.
While the memoir classes I lead are on a short hiatus, I’ve been dedicating more time to my part-time job at Easter Seals Headquarters in Chicago. I’m the Interactive Community Coordinator there, which is just a fancy title that means I moderate the Easter Seals Blog. I keep my ear open for articles and issues concerning disabilities and recruit guest bloggers to write posts about those topics. They email the posts to me, I edit them and add html code, and, presto! Their posts get published.
Come to think of it, You have Easter Seals to thank — or blame — for this Safe & Sound blog. It was at Easter Seals that I learned to use the blogging tools, and now this month at Easter Seals we are “celebrating one of the most important civil rights legislations of our time.”
Accessible design is so common now that some people find it hard to remember life without curb cuts, wheelchair ramps and Braille on elevator buttons. An NPR reporter interviewed Katy Neas, a colleague of mine from Easter Seals Headquarters to remind us what things were like back in the 20th Century.
Katy told the reporter that back then too many people with disabilities were out of sight and out of the minds of the general public. “There was a lot of ignorance about the interests and abilities of people with disabilities,” she said. “Discrimination and low expectations were part of the mainstream culture. Why would someone who uses a wheelchair want to go to the movies? Why would someone who is blind want to eat in a restaurant?”
That last quote stopped me in my tracks. We’ve come a long way, baby. I learned at work that 25 years ago, Easter Seals hired a Minneapolis ad agency to create posters for adults and children with disabilities to bring along to protests and events across the country. The posters were used in print public service announcements, too. More from the NPR story:
As an outspoken advocate for the ADA, Easter Seals created a series of powerful posters that illustrated the dilemmas — and desires — of disabled Americans and helped the country understand the reasons for, and responsibilities resulting from, the anti-discrimination legislation.
We’ve still got a ways to go (25 years after the ADA was passed, the unemployment rate among people who are blind still hovers around 75%) but we really have come a long way in a short time. Just look at the posters now for an idea of what things were like for people with disabilities back in the dark ages. Happy Independence Day to Americans with Disabilities.