Years ago, discrimination against people with disabilities often started right at birth.
That was the case with Danny Woodburn, an actor, comedian and activist who shared his story with VOA via Zoom.
“When I was born, a doctor came to my mom and explained to her my diagnosis in this way: ‘Your son is a midget like you see in the circus,’ Woodburn explained. “So, in that one sentence that he said to my mother, he's basically laid out my entire future.”
One family’s story
The family had been through a similar experience two years earlier, when Woodburn’s brother Steven was born with Down syndrome.
“The doctor came in and said to my mother, ‘your son will be institutionalized his entire life.’ So again, they laid out what his life would be without any sort of understanding of Down syndrome at the time.”
Discrimination against people with disabilities was not only was rampant then, but many were flat out rejected by society.
“What did we do with the disabled people with autism or Down syndrome?” Woodburn noted. “We locked them away; we hid them from the community.”
But luckily, times have changed.
Woodburn, who was officially diagnosed with dwarfism at the age of eight, went on to have a successful acting career, appearing in more than 30 films and making more than 150 television appearances, including the popular TV show Seinfeld.
His success reflects the impact of the ADA — the Americans with Disabilities Act, which offers protection against discrimination to the roughly one in four adults in the United States who have a disability.
Karen Goss is co-director of the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals through meaningful work and community inclusion.
Goss points out that the ADA is a civil rights law.
“As we know, our country has a rich history of civil rights, “she told VOA via Zoom. “But individuals with disabilities were not part of that protection and it became evident that they were not being included in ways that other previously marginalized groups were.”
Signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, the ADA provided protection against discrimination to millions of Americans in school, on the job, and in all public and private places. By doing so, it improved access and quality of life for millions.
“I think one of the most important things that we look at with the Americans with Disabilities Act is its opportunity to level the playing field,” Goss said.
On the job
But in the area of employment for people with disabilities, Goss acknowledges that the number remains low. In 2019, less than 20% of disabled adults had jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It’s one reason why more advocacy is needed, says Woodburn.
“I feel like the real change that has occurred with me and the experience has been through the advocacy that I've been involved in,” he said. “And part of my advocacy with my own industry has been to change the landscape of employment of actors with disability, for example, because the belief system is that for kids if you can't see it, you can't be it.”
Besides improving lives, many of the law’s provisions have benefited those without disabilities.
Ramps and curb cuts, designed to accommodate wheelchairs, for example, help others.
“After those were put in place, people started to see more and more mothers walking their babies in strollers, and delivery persons using those.”
Bicyclists, seniors with walkers, and anyone with wheels needing a smooth path to roll over also are appreciative of these advancements.
And text messaging, another modern convenience, was borne out of technology for the hearing impaired, Woodburn says.
“We owe that to the deaf community and their need to have that access.”
As the world became more accessible, Woodburn says, society came to see more people with disabilities, which helped destigmatize them.
His message to people with disabilities?
“I say, ‘You know, get out! Get out in the world, make yourself known, meet people, be on the street. I don't care that you don't communicate as well as others or you don't move as well as others.’”
As the ADA celebrates 30 years of advancing the lives of millions of Americans, Woodburn says there’s still plenty of room for improvement…
“We have to be included, every step of the way, and we're just not right now. So, we have rhetoric that comes out about what is diversity, what is inclusion, and 95% of the time it doesn't include people with disabilities.”
His hope, he says, is that “anyone that has a diversity or inclusion discussion — either as an advocate or as a corporate leader — that they always include disability, despite how uncomfortable it might make them feel.”