On March 12, 1990, thousands of activists descended on Washington as Congress debated the Americans with Disabilities Act. After a rally and several speeches, the activists gathered on the Capitol Plaza, where dozens of Americans with disabilities, representing more than 59 million Americans with disabilities, found an ally — Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch.
This week we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is a civil rights bill that not only prohibits discrimination, but it opened doors never before accessible across the nation. The wheelchair ramps you see at buildings and the guardrails you see in public restrooms all came as a result of the ADA. People who at first were not aware that the landmark law applied to them found their jobs were not in jeopardy simply because they had diabetes or were in cancer remission.
The bill has four major goals for people with disabilities: equal opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency.
Perhaps the most important part of this landmark legislative achievement was the transformation in attitudes, perceptions and actions throughout society. People with disabilities had begun to be more fully included in everyday activities, more independent and employed.
I am an example of someone who continues to benefit from the ADA. I have a disability. I graduated from Utah State and later earned a doctorate, all while paying my own way. After graduate school, I was able to pay off my student loans, rise to the rank of career senior executive, and even serve as a political appointee in the White House under President George W. Bush.
As someone who has worked in the White House and in the policy world, I can’t imagine that this was an easy legislative undertaking, especially for a conservative Republican from Utah. But Sen. Hatch reached across the aisle — as he has done so many times throughout his public service — to work with Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, and unite his colleagues around the goal of helping those with disabilities.
The ADA is not an entitlement program and has no paid support. It is the foundation for designing and building access to new and remodeled facilities, and the basis of discrimination simply because of disability. The ADA is the highest standard in the world and remains the beacon to which all other nations continue to use to improve their own circumstances. Twenty-five years ago, I joined Sen. Hatch as President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law; tens of thousands of Utahns continue to live, work, and participate in their communities just as anyone else because of this. President Bush stated earlier this month that the ADA is perhaps his most important achievement as president. Without Sen. Hatch, this achievement would not have been possible.
Troy R. Justesen is a native Utahn and a former associate director for domestic policy during the George W. Bush administration. He was later confirmed as assistant secretary of education. He has over 25 years’ experience working on policy issues important to people with disabilities.