July 26, 2015 marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This milestone law prohibits discrimination -- and mandates equal opportunity -- for people with disabilities, in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation & telecommunications, thus guaranteeing the civil and human rights of more than 56 million disabled Americans.
The ADA was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 and has shaped opportunities for people with disabilities in providing equal access to education, employment and to programs and services, including transportation, communications access, public accommodations, and other areas. Even more important, the ADA reinforces the right to dignity and respect for all of those who are, or who become, handicapped. This is indeed hallmark legislation, which has a particular and personal meaning for the author of this article .
More than ten years before the passage of the historic Federal ADA, I was serving as executive director of a community agency serving Eastern Connecticut and based in the lovely city of New London on Long Island Sound. One of my job duties involved publishing a local newspaper every two weeks, and one of the good folks who put together the mailing of several thousand copies of that newspaper was my friend Jamie Nicholson, who had a condition which for many years had required him to be in a wheelchair.
I happened to be out on Captains Walk, the main pedestrian walkway in downtown New London on which my office was located, one Thursday morning in the late 1970s when I heard two loud clunks and a gasp -- there was Jamie in his wheelchair, dropping off the high curb and gasping as his first his front wheels and then his rear wheels hit the gutter. After crossing the street, I was able to assist him in getting up the high curb on the other side, and I asked Jamie what he did if nobody was there to help. He looked unhappy and said that he just waited for a Good Samaritan to come along. I was shocked that someone in a wheelchair had to go through this entire unpleasant process every time he needed to cross a New London street -- and even more shocked at myself for having never been aware of the problem previously, until that moment. So, I decided to see what I could do.
Upon calling New London s City Manager Frank Driscoll later that day, I was told that the City had no funds for cutting handicap access ramps into the curbs along Captains Walk. I responded that, as vice chair of the New London Citizens Advisory Committee, which oversaw all Federal funds coming into the city, I would call this matter to the attention of the Committee so that re-direction of federal funding to meet such needs of those in wheelchairs could be considered. After putting these concerns on the public agenda for the next Citizens Advisory Committee meeting, several residents in wheelchairs turned out to support the need for ramps. After considerable discussion, a resolution was passed which endorsed a change in federal funding priorities to meet these needs, which passed unanimously -- and was then referred to the New London City Council, which agreed.
Within a few short weeks, a study had been commissioned to specify the best model for improving wheelchair access, not only on Captains Walk but throughout the downtown New London area. A few months later, the new ramps had been cut into those high curbs and people in wheelchairs could move throughout the area. It was particularly meaningful for me to see Jamie Nicholson moving smoothly throughout New London in his wheelchair. Now that I had become conscious of such problems, I hoped for their resolution all over America.
All of this happened long before the Americans with Disabilities Act -- but such incidents all across America helped to produce that landmark legislation. I remember a group of disabled people protesting the lack of handicapped access to buses in Hartford, Connecticut during that same early period. Progressive members of Congress took the lead in first proposing, and then securing passage, of the Americans with Disabilities Act. For my part, probably the only permanent mark I will have left on the earth will be the result of helping to achieve those handicap ramps in New London, Connecticut. One small step in one small city, which still helped to lead to the ADA. Our real thanks, though, should go to all those disabled people who have toiled so diligently for so long to make things better for their group, for all Americans, and indeed for humanity.