Enabling the ADA

American politics teaches anyone who pays attention an essential political lesson: rights are not given away. Rights have to be secured – through the ballot box, through legislation, in the courts, the media, and in people’s minds. As much as we all may hope for a fair and just society, fairness and justice do not come without struggle and hard work. That message rings particularly true when it comes to the history of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), perhaps the most comprehensive civil rights legislation ever passed in the United States. The story of how it all came to pass is the subject of Lennard Davis’s fascinating book, Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How the American with Disabilities Act Gave the Largest US Minority Its Rights. More than a work of legislative history, Enabling Acts is an investigation into who, how, and why we think of rights for those with disabilities – before the passage of the ADA, during the debates surrounding it, and today.

Lennard Davis is a scholar, public intellectual and distinguished professor with a lengthy and impressive body of work. While his graduate studies was in English and comparative literature, he masterfully demonstrates all of the skills of an accomplished historian. The depth of research, in addition to the quality of historical framing and arguments in Enabling Acts, is outstanding. It is an excellent study of how an extraordinarily important piece of legislation happened. The players, for and against, the context and the timeline are all presented with clarity and consideration. Making laws is messy business. The more complicated the law, the more complex the forces. The ADA is one of the nation’s most encompassing laws and the corresponding story of how it happened is equally complicated.

Before the ADA, consistent and legally enforced accommodations for those with disabilities simply did not exist. Davis’s parents were deaf. He opens the book recounting the many, many opportunities, from education to employment to culture, that were simply off-limits for his family. Those closed opportunities drove many in the disabled community to seek relief. Moreover, many of their family and friends recognized the injustice and worked towards legislative relief.

High-level, Enabling Acts makes a couple of very important points that remain critical today. First and of the greatest importance, approximately one out of five Americans is disabled. Most of us have been or will be disabled at some point in our lives. Realizing this, appreciating this, and building an understanding that this is something that affects all of us. It is central to gaining a better understanding of the forces that led to the ADA and have contributed to its enforcement over the years. Democrats and Republicans were invested in the ADA. It was a key accomplishment of George Bush’s presidency, who signed the bill in 2000. The initiative, though, was not presidential. It stemmed from the disabled, their families and friends, from civil rights and labor activists, and an eclectic group of Americans who understood that a fair society had to do more for those with disabilities. The ADA is an affirmation of a basic civil rights.

Davis is very helpful explaining how thinking about disability changed, first from a charity model (think of fundraising, perhaps the Jerry Lewis telethon) to a medical model, and eventually time, the emergence of a social model of disability. That concept is key. It frames a disability as “socially constructed and done so in a political way.” Logically, this means that the disability is not “in” the person; it is in society. Society, therefore, is obligated to remove the barriers and enable those that it has decided are disabled. The lengthy implementation of the ADA, stemming in part from how the legislation was written and also from the massive changes required, is an ongoing case study in how we think about, define, and address disability writ large.

There have been many changes since the passage of the law, changes that are now baked into how we think about everyday life. Consider curb cuts for those in wheelchairs, closed captioning for those with hearing issues, attention to those with vision issues on the web, in communication, and in the workplace. It seeks to make sure that more people have access to education, to services, and to lead a full and meaningful life. It also means greater opportunities with employment, though here massive obstacles remain. People with disabilities are significantly more likely to be unemployed or underemployed. Accordingly, people with disabilities are significantly to have less income and less agency.

Improvements must be celebrated, to be sure, but much remains to be done. As Davis puts it so eloquently, the ADA is “a clarion call for justice and fairness.” It is up to each of us – especially in education – to answer that call.

David Potash

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