I just finished listening to an audio book set in 1969. The main character’s brother returns home from Vietnam missing both legs. As he goes store to store in his wheelchair looking for a civilian job, not only will no one hire him – he has to struggle with curbs, stairways and narrow doors.
I used a wheelchair for the first few months after my stroke. On one errand my husband parked our car in a handicapped spot, pushed me along the blue walkway up a ramp in the curb, and through the store’s automated doors. Somewhere along the way he said, "Thank God for the Americans with Disabilities Act."
The ADA passed in 1990 and includes regulations for disabled access to public places, accommodation for the communication-impaired, and anti-discrimination protections for the sick. The ADA has its roots in 1974 civil rights legislation, but the 1980s saw the regulations challenged in both the Supreme Court and Congress. Businesses were balking at the expense of compliance while activists fought back by trying to educate those in power.
The signing of the law by President George H. Bush meant that for the first time in history, businesses had to think about access for people with disabilities. Despite this success, I often wonder as I run my errands: Where are all the people like me? According to the Census Bureau, about one in eight Americans have a "severe disability." But I rarely see anyone more impaired than an elderly person with a cane.
Of course there are other barriers for the disabled to overcome before they venture out in the world – fear and shame among them. But one thing is certain: Without the provisions of the ADA, you would see even fewer of us.
Worldwide disabled statistics