The Beauty of the Americans with Disabilities Act

By Guest Blogger Susan Henderson, Executive Director, Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, Disability Blog, July 10, 2015

In the spring of 1977, I took a quarter off from college, quit my job and, with my best friend, bought a 1966 VW camper van to explore the United States. Before we left, we spent a warm April day (California was in a drought and Jerry Brown was governor, how odd!) practicing the manual shift on the hills of San Francisco. We figured that if we could manage the hills of San Francisco in the bus, we could manage it anywhere.

As we drove into the Civic Center, we noticed a protest – not a rare occurrence in the Bay Area, but this protest was unique because the people protesting were people with disabilities. I admit that as an abled-bodied teenager, I didn’t have a clue what the protest was about, but learned from the local news that protestors were demanding that the Carter Administration issue regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It made perfect sense and it opened my eyes to disability discrimination.

Fast forward 38 years to 2015 and we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), the glorious result of the disability community’s historic campaign to expand the protections of Section 504. In those intervening years, I acquired a disability and had the incredible fortune to go to work at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF), first as its administrative director and now as the executive director.

DREDF was instrumental in the passage of the ADA: with Pat Wright as the leading political strategist, Arlene Mayerson drafting language and providing legal consultation to members of Congress, Marilyn Golden organizing people with disabilities nationwide and Mary Lou Breslin providing the vision, intellect and historical context to DREDF’s work. In 2014, Senator Tom Harkin said about DREDF, “No group has been more instrumental in advancing the cause of civil rights for all people with disabilities than DREDF.”*

The ADA is beautiful – what it has accomplished is spectacular. It has led to the removal of many, many architectural barriers, more accessible public transportation, made it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities in employment, an increasingly accessible Internet, more equitable delivery of health care and much, much more.

I have savored the ADA’s impact on our social consciousness in small but beautiful personal moments:

It is beautiful that the ADA has been used to:

There are so many more remarkable outcomes that I could add to this short list (I invite you to add to the list by using the Comments feature) and undoubtedly there are more to come. I am excited to see how disability rights advocates and activists, in the tradition of the 504 protestors and everyone who worked to pass, implement and enforce the ADA, will use it to expose and eliminate lingering discrimination, increase opportunity and secure equality for people with disabilities.

About the Guest Blogger

Susan Henderson joined Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) in 1997. In addition to her executive director responsibilities, she directs DREDF’s Parent Training & Information Center, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education. In 2004, she started DREDF’s Foster Youth Resources for Education (FYRE) project to heighten awareness and protect the rights of children with disabilities in the child welfare system. In 2007, she established DREDF’s Disability and Media Alliance Project (D-MAP) to address the misinformed disability coverage that undermines public policy and legal advances to coverage that raises public awareness and helps to end disability discrimination. She works internationally with other disability-led organizations to conduct workshops on disability and human rights in Bahrain, Columbia, Guam, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Tanzania, Uganda and Vietnam.

Susan worked for 13 years as part of the cross-disability team that planned, designed and constructed the Ed Roberts Campus (ERC), a universally-designed building in Berkeley, Calif. She currently serves as the president of the ERC board. She has worked in non-profit and law firm management and finance for over 20 years and has an MBA and a BA in Anthropology.

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