July 26, 2015 marked the official 25th anniversary of the signing of the landmark legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The nation has worked hard over the past 25 years to end discrimination against people with disabilities. To celebrate the sense of pride over the changes that have been achieved as well as to keep the public aware of the remaining challenges, organizers were busy preparing for this silver anniversary. Many took the time to remember and celebrate by hosting parades and celebrations. Cities including New York, Philadelphia and Chicago held disability pride parades, and all of the celebrating and excitement is excellent news for a community which has often been historically overlooked and underrepresented.
In New York City, the first of what will be an annual parade was held on Sunday, July 12, 2015 where thousands of participants proudly marched. This parade had people walking, rolling, and scooting down Broadway from Madison Square to Union Square after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio opened the event. Mayor de Blasio spoke about his pride in NYC for being a national leader in supporting the rights of persons with disabilities. The parade was named “Inclusion, Awareness, Visibility” and although it was a joyous celebration marking a historic event in the lives of our peers, there were certain barriers remaining that needed to be addressed. Former Senator Tom Harkin, who was an author of the ADA and has been a longtime champion in the disability rights community, spoke on some vital matters. He served as grand marshal of the parade and talked about the important progress made towards accessibility, yet also pointed out the alarmingly high unemployment rate for people with disabilities and the need to continue advocacy.
One difficulty facing some New Yorker’s who wanted to march that day was that the nearest subway station did not have an accessible elevator. However, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) had arranged for special pickup and drop-off spots for Access-A-Ride and advocates noted that the current accessibility issue is being addressed. Kevin Ortiz, agency spokesman of the MTA, said that they are set to have 100 accessible subway stations by 2020. Also, Edith Prentiss (a former NYSILC council member) and transit and disability advocate, suggested that it would be wise to remain patient with slow advances in accessible travel in NYC.
The parade was as an excellent opportunity for advocates to be vocal and open about the changes they hoped for. Some held signs with slogans stating the need for law enforcement officials to stop using violence against disabled people, others had signs of unity that declared “we are better together,” and others held ones that asked for more access to public housing and transportation. One disability activist named Aron Kay summed up the hope, strength and empowerment that comprised this day. He commented in the New York Daily News, stating that “this parade is a springboard to a goldmine of political action…we must take the good fight into our hands so we achieve our goals of pride, interdependence, and the realization our rights don’t get shoved under the bus! I feel the rights of the disabled should be an issue with the coming presidential election….” His words spoke of the changes we still hope to see in our community. In accordance, some excellent political changes coincided to honor the 25th birthday of the ADA! These were two vital pieces of legislation that Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed for the State’s support of people with disabilities, and they were finally signed after two decades of effort by advocates including Frank Pennisi. One was a law (S.1405) that was sponsored by Senator Carl Marcellino that clarified that it is discriminatory for an operator (public or private) to refuse to remove certain architectural or communication barriers in their areas. It also eliminated the exception for the barrier removal requirement for public libraries. The second major piece of legislation signed on this day was A.7766.A which was sponsored by Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther. This law directs the NYS Office of People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) to examine state laws and regulations pertaining to military family members and offer vital improvements so those laws will better serve these families of people with developmental disabilities.
Finally, there was a celebration in West Capital Park in Albany on July 24 to commemorate and this event featured red, white and blue balloons and “Happy 25th Anniversary ADA” banners displayed around the park, along with cupcakes and the musical ensemble Flame. This group features 10 talented musicians from upstate New York who also have various disabilities. Flame has played for a wide variety of audiences from all four corners of the continental United States and has released 4 CDs. They performed many wonderful songs for the event, which was opened by Roger Bearden, General Counsel for the OPWDD. The program featured prominent people who spoke of the advances they had seen in the lives of people since the ADA was signed into law back in 1990. NYS Assemblymember Patricia Fahy commented on how the law has notably affected mainstreaming in schools for all students, and how integration and assimilation is now commonplace. Jim Weisman, President of United Spinal Association, spoke about accessible transportation and the changes made over the years as paratransit became part of the ADA. Some of the other speakers included Kerry A. Delaney, OPWDD Acting Commissioner and disability advocates Shameka Andrews, Letisha Comstock and Tony Phillips. Their words symbolized just how vital the ADA has been in bringing about many necessary changes in our lives that we did not have before. They spoke about its impact and how life has changed for the better since it was enacted. One advocate has a fully accessible apartment and also noted how mainstreaming in schools had been important to her own success in life as an advocate and speaker for others. Another pointed out how we have changes we take for granted such as sidewalk curb cuts and accessible vehicles, as well as disability centers at colleges that have allowed her to attend and find success and will pave the way for future students with disabilities.
It was clear from listening to the speakers that we while we may have more changes and barriers to overcome, we have surely come a long way from where we were 25 years ago since the ADA was signed into existence!