A rousing opening at the 21st National ADA Symposium
A close encounter with a severe thunderstorm and tornado warning didn’t dampen the spirits of over 1,000 attendees at the 21st National ADA Symposium in Grapevine, Texas.
Held at the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center, the event, which is the premier conference on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), officially kicked off Monday with a rousing keynote speech from Lex Frieden.
Frieden, a professor of biomedical informatics and physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, was one of the key architects in drafting the ADA.
He warmed up the crowd by having them chant, “What do we want? ADA! When do we want it? Now!” Then, he had them change it to, “What do we want? ADA enforcement. When do we want it? Now!”
Frieden spoke about his role in independent living advocacy, which led to Congress’ creation of the National Council on Disability, which he chaired from 2002-2006. That council laid the groundwork for the passage of the comprehensive ADA in 1990 and its signing by former President George H.W. Bush.
“All of that history, I think, is important because it reflects the disability movement,” says Frieden. “Without the disability movement … and without millions of people around the United States between 1988 and 1990 shouting, ‘What do we want? ADA! When do we want it? Now!’ there would never have been an ADA. The ADA was really a people’s law.”
Now, nearly 30 years later, Frieden said many people are still working hard to continue the ADA’s implementation.
“Sometimes at night, late at night, I think to myself, ‘Thirty years, and yet we still see discrimination,” he said. “… You say, ‘What have we achieved?’ Well, we haven’t got too many people in public office. Texas is an exception. We’ve got a governor who uses a wheelchair, but that is the exception. And when people with disabilities try to run for public office and get slammed by that kind of blatant attitude, we need to change things and we need to change them now. And the only way we change them is get involved and to challenge those attitudes. We can challenge them through our voices, we can write op-eds, we can file lawsuits, we can file complaints, we can engage the enforcement mechanism. But the most important thing we can do is educate ourselves and others about the meaning of the ADA and about the importance of it to us because that’s what will move people and change attitudes.”
Frieden said some of the ADA’s greatest achievements were creating awareness of disability, deinstitutionalizing people with disabilities so they could live in communities and improving transportation.
“Before July 26, 1990, only three transit companies in the United States had a commitment to fully accessible bus routes,” he said. “Today, every transit company in the United States has that commitment. That’s a huge achievement. And that occurred in a relatively short period of time after the ADA.”
There are also greater numbers of people with disabilities, including severe disabilities, who are employed, yet there is still a lack of representation, Frieden said.
“Economic well-being of people with disabilities is really, we’re not there, no matter how you measure. Measure in terms of household income. Measure it terms of amount of savings. Measure it in terms of salary. Measure it terms of whether you have a job or not. People with disabilities, after 30 years of ADA, have not yet reached equity, parity. We’re not fully engaged. And we talk a lot about inclusion. We’re included, sort of, we’re included when they want to. We’re included when we want to be included so badly that we have to ask, and sometimes even then we’re not included. So, what do we have to do about that? We have to get involved. We have to get engaged in our community.”
Frieden added that two of the greatest needs subsequent to the ADA are affordable accessible housing and community-based services and support to help people live independently.
“There is no magic bullet … and there’s probably not another law that will help because the ADA virtually covers these things,” he said. “But when we a while ago expressed our concern about ADA enforcement, we were expressing the greatest concern that people with disabilities and advocates in the United States today have about the ADA. There’s nothing wrong with the ADA. The ADA works. But it needs to be enforced, and it’s not just the enforcement agencies that are designated to help us do that. It involves us. If we don’t file a complaint, if we don’t challenge, we will never have our rights enforced, so we have to be advocates. We have to advocate for ourselves, we have to advocate for our family members, we have to advocate for those who we are selling goods and services to, we have to advocate for those of whom we are service providers of. We need to be advocates for people with disabilities. Our families need to advocate, we need to take the initiative.”
In closing, Frieden encouraged the audience members to get active.
“Whatever you can do, do it from the standpoint of power, because we are powerful together we will, and we can make the ADA real, we can enforce the ADA, and we can make everyone with a disability an equal part of the United States and an equal part of participation throughout the world.”