The Americans with Disabilities Act: 20 Years and Counting

The history of mankind is a review of how humanity has managed to develop and create a method of interactive association. In other words, how working together benefits us all. We actually joined together in order to survive in the cruel and dangerous world of pre-history man. We needed support to protect ourselves from predators-mostly other humans. In coming together we found that doing things in concert created a better way of life for all. We as hunter-gatherers delineated chores in a way that benefited everyone. This concept evolved into our modern society.

Historically, society did fill its needs generationally so jobs never went unmet and society kept functioning on a healthy and sustainable and productive level. What was needed was made. As the world became a smaller and smaller place our society became more and more interdependent. We rely on each other and over each other more than ever before. But an issue arose that society had never had never before had to address. What does society do with persons who do not fit society’s mold of what is needed from an individual and what can be given to that individual?

The Spartans in the dawn of civilization murdered their disabled and every empire along the way either marginalized the disabled or continued Spartan eugenics, as in the case of Nazi Germany. The truth is that society had no use for persons who were not able bodied. Those that took more that they gave were seen as an unnecessary burdens on everyone else. Through thousands of years of societal evolution, through religious upheavals, revolutionary thought, enlightenment periods, religious reformations, political discord and scientific breakthroughs, society had managed to retain one of its oldest superstitions: the disabled were to be feared, misunderstood and shut away from society as a whole. Even in mid-20th century America, ignorance and evil abounded. We all remember the horrors that were Willowbrook . Modern society could no longer claim that the attic, shackles and disregard for the visibly or invisibly disabled was a thing of medieval history. Warehoused, ignored and kept away from the rest of society, the treatment of the disabled was modern society’s dirty little secret.

However, 20 years ago this all changed. The Congress of the United States passed the American with Disabilities Act. This law enabled those persons with disabilities the right to be fully fledged members of society and that society as a whole was required to accommodate the disabled in their midst and welcome them into the world at large. I remember when the ADA became law. I remember the hullaballoo. I remember the hand wringing and the dire predictions of the death of American business. I remember the world decrying the interference of government into the mainstream lives of the everyday person. I remember how municipalities decried the fact that they would have to create wheelchair ramps and disability friendly public restrooms.

You know money is a very important element in life. Without it, there is very little that can be accomplished. It is just a sad fact of life. However, sometimes money is not the end result and the end reason. Sometimes society needs to think beyond the ledger page and recognize that in life there are rights and wrongs. It is what separates us out from the Spartan and yes, from the Nazi too. Why was it that due to some unforeseen money issues that it was thought that it was just fine that a segment of society remain disenfranchised? Why was it thought ok that the disabled should not be able to fully access everything that society had to offer? It is as simple sometimes as a wheelchair ramp to access a sidewalk or a ramp to go to the bathroom. Think how it would curtail your world if you knew that there was no place for you to go if you needed a bathroom? What would that inflict upon you and take from you? Why would some still think that the disabled were not members of society and entitled to be all that they could be just like able bodied and neurotypical persons? I remember very vividly the arguments in the papers and among the pundits, and I think those that stood against this bill should rightly feel shame.

I know that it amazes us today that this was even an issue. In our world the disabled are in every walk of life, it is hard to fathom that people were once so against inclusion. But it was not that long ago that the parents of the children in collegeman’s 2nd grade class threatened to sue the school if he remained in the classroom. Fifteen years ago he was the first child brought back in district from an autism program and placed in a mainstream classroom with an aide. Many parents in the classroom went ballistic, from threats of lawsuits to calling my son a “retard” we heard it all. This was the attitude we dealt with from some of the most highly educated and financially successful people in the country. Ignorance is not a purview of the uneducated. Just because you have a string of degrees after your name doesn’t mean that you are a human being or understand what your education was supposed to have taught you.

Yes this attitude towards collegeman continued through graduation. While there were some who were kind to collegeman the majority of the students, taking a cue from their parents, bullied and then alienated him throughout his education. I know that people do not think of themselves as bad people. I know that they do think of themselves as evil, but those parents who promoted the idea that collegeman was “the different” are evil and vile and are deserving of my contempt and the contempt of any truly decent person in society. By the way bullying is a major epidemic in this nation. A wonderful project called the Bullying Project has been started to give voice to the victims. Watch some of the You Tube Channel here.

Ironically HSB had a much different experience in school than his brother. A more intelligent, open minded and truly educated group of parents taught their children kindness and compassion. This is what society should be. Yes, of course, it is not perfect. HSB doesn’t get invited to parties or asked to the movies, but other students acknowledge him, engage him in conversation and listen to his thoughts and opinions. Some even seek out his help on projects they know he is good at. As I have said before. Same town, different year, better parents.

So what does the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act mean to me? I suppose it means hope. I know in many ways people are leery of anyone who says hope and change today. Personally I never bought it as political hype anyway. Anyone who knows me knows I voted for the other guy and gal, but hope is not dependent upon one individual, political party or society as a whole. Hope is dependent upon each of us and what we do on a daily basis.

Since persons with disabilities are such a part of mainstream America today, I am also not totally convinced that when people say “no” today or have issues with persons with visible or invisible disabilities it is totally out of cruelty. For some it is. For some they are mental and emotional throw backs to another age full of ignorance, hate and stupidity. But for others its truly just a lack of understanding and education.

I was in the supermarket recently and I began to play with a baby in a carriage behind me on the check-out line. A beautiful tow headed little girl about six months of age. Her grandmother was taking care of her and a prouder granny you really didn’t see. I mentioned to the grandmother that she will make a beautiful neurosurgeon some day. The grandmother looked sad suddenly and informed me that the baby had spinabifida. I told the grandmother that that didn’t mean she couldn’t be a doctor. The expression on the grandmother’s face changed almost immediately. It had never dawned on her that the two things, a disability and intellect were not always connected somehow. The grandmother was not being cruel towards her granddaughter. Her misunderstanding was merely a manifestation of not being educated and yet everything she thought came from a place of profound love for the grandbaby in front of her. It was amazing the calm that came over the grandmother. Realization is a wonderful thing.

So as I think of the ADA today, I do remember and recognize how over the last two decades society has grown and developed at an enormous rate. Society has taken a giant leap for mankind. But I also see on a daily basis how far society still has to go. But you know what, we can do it. It may take work, quite a lot of work in fact, but our children have the right to be who they want to be. They are dependent on us. After all this is the United States of America in the 21st century, not ancient Sparta (even though Gerard Butler did look rather good as King Leonides, ok I really do like the movie 300), there is no one and nothing that can stand in our way and our children’s way. Besides, there is a little baby with spinabifida who is going to be a beautiful neurosurgeon one day. Society has to be ready for her and for our children as well. Time to get to work there’s still alot to be done.

Until next time,


P.S. Remember that the IEP falls under the Individual with Disabilties Education Act not the ADA. 504 plans derive their legal authority from the ADA. Please make sure that you understand the legal differences and how each law effects your child, their services and accommodations.


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Elise Ronan
The purpose of this blog is to document the practical and realistic approach taken over the decades to help our two sons grow, and develop in order become all that they are entitled to become as human beings.
Elise Ronan

Elise Ronan

The purpose of this blog is to document the practical and realistic approach taken over the decades to help our two sons grow, and develop in order become all that they are entitled to become as human beings.

0 thoughts on “The Americans with Disabilities Act: 20 Years and Counting

  • Society has come a long, long way but there is still a long long way to go!

    Great piece Elise.

  • I am 20 years old and have CP…I don’t want to imagine what my life would have been like in school without the ADA. It didn’t make life perfect as it was (many ignored it and still do), but things certainly would’ve been worse without it.


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