July 26, 2015 marked the 25th anniversary of the signing of the American's with Disabilities Act.
The ADA was certainly landmark civil rights legislation. It put us on a path towards a more inclusive nation. It took us a giant step closer to fulfilling the promise of equal opportunity.
Equal Access. Equal Opportunity. These are the cornerstones of what the ADA is about, what is means to the many Americans living with disabilities. And isn't equality the most fundamental of our values as Americans? Isn't equal opportunity the promise that we are all given; the promise that we all collectively must work to ensure is fulfilled?
Each day in my work I see examples of how far we still have to go to become a truly inclusive society where access and opportunity truly are equal. The reality is that children are still segregated away from their non-disabled peers because of their disabilities. The reality is that our schools and our courts have accepted standards that lower the expectations for students with disabilities to such a minimal and basic standard that many will not be granted the same "opportunity" as their non-disabled peers - the opportunity for high quality education with rigorous standards and expectations that prepares them to be competitive in further education and careers. The reality is that children with disabilities are still denied access.
I also know that we have a long ways to go towards inclusiveness in contexts beyond our school systems. The employment gap between those without disabilities and those with disabilities is still unacceptably large, and we are not doing enough to address that. While we have laws to ensure access in public accommodations, many with disabilities still struggle to access places and events and all of those things that give us a quality of life on the same level as those without disabilities.
But with all of that being the reality, we have much to celebrate on this day as we reflect back on the passage of the ADA. We have come far, and this landmark legislation was an important and necessary moment in that journey.
On that Sunday, July 26th, as our nation marked the anniversary of this important moment in the history of the disability rights movement, Mandy and I, along with a friend and another co-worker, spent the day at the Special Olympics World Games here in Los Angeles.
What an amazing experience it was to spend the day cheering on the Special Olympic Athletes! When I reflect on what the ADA means in our society today and on what we are still striving for as disability rights activists - inclusion, acceptance, the right to participate in society - the Special Olympics is such a positive example of those things. The Special Olympics promotes a vision of a world that embraces unity, dignity, achievement, acceptance, and inclusion. The experience of being a fan in attendance is truly amazing. In my everyday "world" immersed in the work of special education advocacy, I too often experience conversations and situations that are focused on the needs and the deficits and the inabilities of the students. The games showcase the abilities and achievements of the athletes. I too often see evidence of lowering expectations for students with disabilities. The games teach us not to accept limits. "Brave has no limits" was a slogan seen everywhere we went that day, and it was perfect.
As we watched the Volleyball games, we learned about the initiative for "Unified Teams" that is currently promoted throughout the world by the Special Olympics. While the "traditional" teams competing were comprised only of persons with disabilities, the "Unified Teams" were comprised of a combination of those with disabilities and those without. I heard (but missed seeing for myself) that the softball teams had several celebrities participating even. Unified Teams promotes inclusion - it builds a program where athletes and participants are not separate or segregated but are all participating together, and that is a beautiful thing. Because ultimately, it is our life experiences that give us the ability to learn acceptance - and truly becoming inclusive as a society doesn't just mean that we allow access - it must mean that we all learn to accept one another.
And I think that what I love the most about the work that the Special Olympics organization does is that they focus on truly promoting inclusion. By bringing forth and promoting awareness about intellectual disabilities and by building events and activities that are accepting of all people equally, the Special Olympics is working to make us the society we are meant to be - pushing us to fulfill that elusive promise of equality.