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The Emancipation Proclamation for the Disability Community

posted by Chris Sparks on Friday, August 7, 2015

In my High School Senior English Composition class, we were given the assignment to write a research paper. Given three days to complete the research, but suspecting it would only take me two, I read a book the first day. When I completed the project, the teacher returned it with an "A," which she then reduced to a "B" for "not using your time wisely." I was outraged; it felt so unfair, so unjust! But, my arguments were for naught, and the "B" stood. This was one of my few minor brushes with injustice, with being treated unfairly. I can scarcely comprehend belonging to a class or group that contends with far more serious treatment consistently.

People with disabilities have had and still have to work daily to overcome discrimination and unfair treatment. Among the legal advancements that support their efforts, none is more fundamental than the Americans with Disabilities Act signed into law by then President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. As we celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the ADA, we are reminded that President Bush stated at the signing of the bill, "Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down."

The ADA was an expansion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which seemed fitting — and was sometimes referred to as "the Emancipation Proclamation for the disability community." When the legislation was passed, the possibilities seemed endless and the impacts profound. In Iowa, we were all very proud that Senator Tom Harkin was a principal sponsor.

The ADA was "the world's first comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities." The Act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment (Title I), in public services (Title II), in public accommodations (Title III) and in telecommunications (Title IV). (

In the 25 years since the ADA was passed, people with disabilities have had opportunities open to them that would never have been possible without the law. I have been witness to restaurants, bowling alleys, and other businesses making their buildings more accessible due to the ADA. In public accommodations, many transit busses are now accessible, as are sidewalks leading to them and the stops where people wait.

In employment, we continue to make slow but often meaningful progress in our quest to support people with disabilities in real work for fair pay. As is often the case, we who work in the IDD field are more consumed with what still needs to be done rather than what has been done. And, so much remains undone.

Those of us who have spent our professional lives championing the rights of people with disabilities must be concerned about the plight of all who feel the effects of injustice and discrimination. In our culture, there are still deep divides — religion, race, income and class still separate us much too often. For some Americans, membership in certain groups means that they simply don't have the same opportunities afforded them as others. In a great country this is untenable and we must not rest until true equality for all is realized.

The efforts of individuals matter in this struggle, but we are always more effective when we unite our efforts with like-minded others. Partnering with ANCOR, our national trade association, affords us such an opportunity. As a great association, we have been on the forefront of efforts that create opportunities for people with disabilities. As a community of practice we support strenuous dialogue among members, always welcoming dissenting opinions, for through such discourse we are all enlightened and we learn together.

As we celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the ADA, let us pause to celebrate our victories, catalogue our remaining challenges, and resolve to work together to continue our efforts to support the creation of community that welcomes and values all. 

Originally written for ANCOR's President's Corner

About The Author

Chris Sparks served as EPI's third ever Executive Director from 1998 until 2022.