Ahmed Alenezi, a 21-year-old graduate of Perkins' Deafblind Program, never imagined he’d find himself putting on a pair of gloves and getting in a boxing ring—until his senior year. Then, thanks to the Perkins adapted PE program, in which students and teachers work to explore activities that will help them to lead active lives post-graduation, Alenezi began working on his moves in a gym in Watertown, Massachusetts. He hopes to continue boxing and possibly work at the gym where he fell in love with jabbing and hooking.
That's a far cry from the world before Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was then signed into law by President George H.W. Bush 30 years ago. The ADA’s four primary goals include full participation, equal opportunity, independent living and economic self-sufficiency.
While there’s still a lot of work to be done, the progress made in just decades, say some advocates, is an epic change. “Prior to the ADA, Americans didn’t see people with disabilities as a valued part of the community,” says Josh Loebner, a blind disability advocate director of strategy at DesignSensory and a Ph.D. student in process at Clemson University. “Today we are part of the American fabric. We are witnessing a paradigm shift.”
A new mindset still in the making
Senator Tom Harkin, (D-Iowa), the chief sponsor of the ADA, was asking for nothing short of a complete change in Americans' mindset, “No person with a disability should be discriminated against or held back from achieving their goals due to a medical diagnosis or condition.” The idea was to help disabled people become more visible and more valued. That’s a dramatic shift and Americans are still grappling with their own stigma and bias while we applaud three decades of progress.
The four pillars of the ADA
Full participation. A grassroots movement for the civil rights of disabled Americans that began in the 1970s eventually grew into a national movement. Some say that fighting for the rights to access public spaces—from museums and parks to sidewalks and parking lots—fostered pride and changed public perception. Today, the right to an accessible polling site and support to communicate your needs in a hospital or pharmacy cannot be taken for granted. In a global pandemic, it’s easy to see how accessibility and independent living can become a matter of life or death.
Equal opportunity. By law, the ADA demands equal opportunities and access to public spaces including those offered in private places. The ADA defined discrimination as the failure of an employer or proprietor of a place open to the public, including state and local government, as a failure to accommodate people with disabilities.
Independent living. The ADA essentially paved the way for independent living and participation in the community. Because of the ADA, cities, and towns installed thousands of miles of sidewalks with curb cuts and parking lots. Public venues made their parking lots and bathrooms accessible. Today, that includes everything from hotel shuttle buses to private buses and taxis. Support and assistance also include offering rider information in accessible formats, such as large print, braille, or alternative, and electronic format.
Economic self-sufficiency. Today, employment for people with disabilities is still at a dismal low. While we may hear about the blind chef on national television or see the blind hockey coach we love on Instagram, a decade from now, the goal is full inclusion into the workforce, complete with skills training, accommodation, and access to transportation.
In the final words of then-President George H. W. Bush on that day as he signed the bill in front of thousands of wheelchair users and other disabled people, “We embrace you for your abilities and your disabilities, for our similarities and indeed, our differences, for your courage and your future dreams.”
The importance of digital accessibility
Digital accessibility is, without a doubt, the ‘curb cuts’ of the next generation. Amid growing calls for change, and legal action, corporate America is taking more accountability for both employing and serving the blind community. Discussing the future of the ADA at an event at the University of Iowa, Senator Harkin said, “We must avoid the travesty that would occur if the doors that were opened to Americans from advancing technologies were closed to individuals with disabilities because we were not vigilant,” Harkin said. There are examples of both blunders and big changes. Twitter recently rolled out a new feature that is inaccessible to disabled users. Domino’s pizza tried to claim that its web design did not need to be accessible to people with disabilities—and was denied an appeal to the Supreme Court. Netflix now has audio-described content. (To learn more about digitally accessible content, visit the American Foundation for the Blind.)
With our rapid pivot to remote work during the pandemic, businesses had to become much more tuned into digital accessibility or they risked losing customers, impeding remote work, telehealth and education. That’s why the next phase of the ADA gives businesses ample motivation to be accessible to all. Today, global reports show that the number of blind people is rising and overall there may be some 703 million people who are blind or are visually impaired by the year 2050. If much of what is available digitally remains inaccessible, that’s a lot of opportunities left on the table.
The past few years have been an exciting time in assistive technology, according to BlindNewWorld. They compiled a list of their favorite advancements—and there are more wearable devices and screen reading options available every day. The Way Band is a wearable device that guides users to a specified location using vibration. Be My Eyes is a free mobile app that pairs visually impaired individuals with a sighted volunteer, who, via video chat can assist with everything from checking the expiration date on a carton of milk to figuring out which color shirts are for sale in a store.
Are we there yet? Well, getting there
Perkins also understands the value of independence. Not all visually impaired people want or need assistance. There’s no shortage of examples. Nikki Watson, a 53-year-old blind equestrian from the U.K. who has progressively lost her sight over the years, explained it matter-of-factly: “While some people might think you can be blind or you can be horsey, but under no circumstances can you be both, I say: I beg to differ!”