In the last three decades, curb cuts and handicapped-accessible bathrooms have become expectations in any kind of public building project.
Their ubiquity can be traced back to legislation enacted 31 years ago this week, when President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act into law on July 26, 1990.
This enduring law has opened doors to employment, transportation, housing and public accommodation for countless Americans with disabilities, including many in St. Joseph. In retrospect, it’s heartwarming to see how a piece of legislation eliminated barriers for so many people. At the same time, it’s disheartening to contemplate whether a consensus could be reached on legislation of similar reach today.
The ADA was co-sponsored by Democratic senators, including Joe Biden of Delaware, and signed into law by a Republican president. There were grumbles about unfunded mandates, and sometimes public improvements are delayed because of the cost of ADA compliance, but by and large the consensus then, as now, is that the ADA was a major step forward in allowing all Americans to participate in public life.
Could Congress achieve that today?
We’d like to think so, but most likely an ADA proposal would be seen as an undue burden on business or an example of Marx creeping into our lives one wheelchair ramp at a time. On the flip side, this legislation’s emphasis on dignity through work and the equality of opportunity would be seen as heartless at a time when the government would just as soon settle old scores or mail you a check.
Today, every problem — from face masks to vaccines to how to teach history to students — is a test of political wills that seems to get both sides of the aisle tied up in knots. In contrast, the ADA was pursued less as a partisan issue and more as a practical problem needing to be solved. How can the government help people in wheelchairs, or those with visual or hearing impairment, to live as normal a life as possible without presenting an undue burden to the private sector or local government?
The ADA didn’t fall out of the sky in 1990 but was the culmination of years of advocacy at a local and state level. There’s still a committee in St. Joseph dedicated to working through the nitty-gritty of removing barriers and putting the legislation into practice.
Three decades later, the question isn’t whether the ADA went far enough or made enough of an impact in opening doors for those with disabilities.
The bigger question, a sobering one for our times, is whether anyone in Washington, D.C., would be capable to get something like this done in 2021.