Twenty years ago this week, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. It mandates minimum standards for the inclusion of the disabled in public buildings, the workplace and other areas. An anniversary celebration for the ADA was held in New York on Monday, where people with disabilities talked about the impact the bill has had on their lives.
Tap Waterz and Rick Fire, the wheelchair-bound members of the Hip Hop duo Four Wheel City, performed at the start of the celebration. The event was co-hosted by the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities and the Project Access organization and attended by an enthusiastic crowd of more than 200 guests, many with disabilities.
After his act, Waterz, who was paralyzed by a gunshot wound, says the spirit of inclusion at the event is part of the message behind Four Wheel City's music.
"We make songs that deal with accessibility, discrimination, educating people about how to deal with living in a wheelchair," he explained. "Our whole thing is just showing people that no matter what you go through, you still can make something out of yourself. What our music is and what our music represents is universal."
Here in Manhattan, New York's wealthiest and most touristed borough, there are ample curb cuts and ramps for wheelchairs, and other amenities for the disabled. The streets are mostly flat.
Rick Fire, Waterz' partner, was wounded several years ago by a stray bullet on the way home from school. He says that conditions are far better than they were in 1990 when the ADA became law, and that they are improving. But, he says, ease of mobility still is a frequent challenge in his low-income Bronx neighborhood.
"Where I'm from, there are a lot of hills and there is a lot of places I can't go. There are still buildings where I can't get in because they've got steps," he noted. "But overall, it's good. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, we are being more accepted. Having a disability, people still look at you weird, but it's like, 'Alright. He's got a disability, but it's kind of okay now.'"
Life for people with disabilities has improved greatly since Bobbi Wailes was stricken with polio as a 12-year-old, before the vaccine became available in the 1950s. In those days, schools were not wheelchair accessible and she had to be tutored at home three days a week. Adult polio victims often lived in institutions.
But Wailes was determined to have a normal life. After high school, she got a job in a hospital - one of the few workplaces with accessible bathrooms. She worked at the hospital for 30 years, mostly as an administrator. During that time, she and others fought to make the ADA a reality for the disabled.
"Let me tell you something, disability doesn't care if you're young, old, rich, poor, black, white, green or purple," she said. "Disabilities will always be with us, unfortunately. So it behooves all of us to make it a world that everybody can live in."
As Commissioner of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities and as a blind man, it is Matthew Sapolin's mission to fulfill the spirit and the letter of the ADA by working to ensure that New Yorkers with disabilities can live, work and learn here with relative ease.
That means, for example, working to improve the city's transportation system with more wheelchair accessible taxis, and providing working elevators for the subways and motorized lifts for buses. Sapolin says it also means working with the school system to ensure that children with disabilities receive the same education as their non-disabled peers, and seeing to it that that all public buildings comply with ADA requirements.
"If we are going to build something - how we build it, how we construct it so that it would be accessible to people of all types of disabilities, whether we talk about a ramp or we talk about a doorway or a handrail, if we are talking about people who are blind, things like braille on elevators and signage and things like that," Sapolin said. "So those codes are all there. We see them all over our city. And I think that's the tangibility of the Act that's obvious for everyone to see."
Although there's near universal agreement that the Americans with Disabilities Act was a huge step forward, many Americans say that much work remains to be done to ensure the equality of access that all people deserve.
In practical terms, experts say, this will require the extensive upgrading of an aging infrastructure put in place before the ADA was came into being. It also means increasing opportunities for the disabled in employment and other spheres of public life. Disability advocates say that also will help diminish the negative stereotyping that people with disabilities sometimes still endure.