July Brings More Than One Independence Day

National Disability Independence Day commemorates the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Many of us associate the month of July with America’s Independence Day. I wanted to take a moment to talk about a different Independence Day that also happens this month: National Disability Independence Day, which commemorates the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, 1990.

The fight of people with disabilities to get protections under the ADA has many parallels with the civil rights and women’s rights movements, and it’s an important part of the work to make our society equitable and inclusive. I recommend you check out “Crip Camp,” a documentary about the disability rights movement.

Ableism — discrimination based on the belief that there is one right way to have a body or mind — is just as rampant in our society as racism, sexism, or other types of discrimination. In the physical sense, it can mean an absence of ramps, lack of accessible bathrooms, or signs that do not include large print or Braille. But it also happens in social interactions, policies, and laws when we do things that make participation difficult or impossible for people with disabilities, such as banning wheels from certain areas (which excludes people in wheelchairs) or forcing employees with disabilities to make their own adaptations to a non-accessible work environment.

The passage of the ADA was an incredibly important moment in our country’s history. For the first time, people with disabilities were protected from employment discrimination and could have better access to goods, services, and communications. The law broke down barriers that people with disabilities faced every day. For example, how could someone with a wheelchair travel around a city if there were no ramps or elevators? Even if they found a way to get to a public building to do business, how could they use a restroom without an accessible stall? The ADA decreed that these issues and others must be addressed to improve mobility and safety for numerous individuals in our country.

The fight to get this law passed was led by courageous and steadfast activists who wouldn’t take no for an answer — much like the activists in the civil rights or gay rights movements. In one famous protest, known as the “Capitol Crawl,” over 1,000 people marched from the White House to the U.S. Capitol in support of ADA protections. When they arrived, about 60 people with disabilities cast aside their wheelchairs and mobility aids and crawled up the Capitol steps, something they were forced to do because there was no other way to get into the building.

Here are a few videos to help you learn more about the history of the ADA:

We also encourage you to take some time to read and learn more about notable people with disabilities, such as:

  • Judith Heumann: Heumann, who has used a wheelchair most of her life, first experienced discrimination at age 5 when she was denied the ability to attend school because the administration thought she was a “fire hazard.” A lifelong advocate for disability rights, Heumann was one of the leaders of a 28-day sit-in at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1977 to convince lawmakers to sign important legislation protecting civil rights for people with disabilities.
  • Haben Girma: Girma is a human rights lawyer who works to advance disability justice. The first Deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, she travels the country as a public speaker to change people’s perceptions of the disability community. Her legal and advocacy work have garnered honors from U.S. presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
  • Cyrus Habib: A former politician in Washington state, Habib began his political career in 2012 by winning a seat in the Washington House of Representatives. In 2016, he was elected lieutenant governor in Washington, becoming the first and only Iranian-American to hold statewide elected office in the U.S. While in office, Habib, who is blind, prioritized equitable access to higher education and job growth through international trade.
  • Disabilities are not always visible, and many famous people with less-visible disabilities have made notable accomplishments, including actor Dan Aykroyd (Asperger syndrome), swimmer Michael Phelps (ADHD), and singer Cher (dyslexia and dyscalculia).

I hope you will take some time this month to educate yourself about the history of disability rights, why it’s important, and how we can continue to be more equitable and inclusive today for people with disabilities. This is just as important as creating equity and inclusion for other groups, and I will continue to look for ways we can improve experiences for people with disabilities at OYA.

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