It’s a joy to celebrate the 25th birthday of the Americans with Disabilities Act, landmark legislation which is the result of disabled people insisting, as the rallying cry goes, “Nothing about us, without us!”
But what’s especially important is that the ADA is a gain for all of us.
As an English professor who specializes in disability studies, I look at the social history and representation of disabled people in art, literature and culture. For me, the ADA’s 25th anniversary is an occasion to think about the positive ways disability is continually transforming our society.
Like racism, “ableism” (the belief that disability is an inherently inferior state of personhood) is deeply entrenched in our culture. Consider how much our language perpetuates the idea – “That’s so lame!” or “That’s insane!” An important part of what the ADA works to correct is how negative attitudes toward disability have been encoded, often without our realizing it, into the activities, objects and structures of daily life. The ADA insists we move past seeing disabled people only as their diagnoses, or as the objects of our charity. The legislation insists that we acknowledge them as fellow citizens who have the same rights as nondisabled people to access employment, transportation, housing and accommodations.
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In short, the ADA insists on making visible and changing able-ist attitudes, and making disabled people visible participants in society. The mandate is transformational. The more we see disabled citizens as fellow citizens, the more we can support their desire to work, love and be ambitious and creative.
The anniversary is a chance to reflect on how disability contributes to society as an identity category as real and rich as race, gender or sexuality. Disability shows there are many ways to move, think, communicate and be embodied.
Some scholars call this understanding “disability gain,” and that can seem radical. Isn’t disability supposed to be something we avoid? But disability exemplifies the myriad ways it’s possible to be embodied, far beyond some uninteresting notion of an ideal body type or typical mind. Disability rights are in all our interest. We all live in changeable bodies, and will all become disabled if we live long enough.
Think about how far we’ve come – from being a state which compelled the forced sterilization of our fellow citizens in the name of human perfectability to being one in which groups work to promote the full inclusion of disabled people into our communities.
There’s still a great deal to do. But the ADA affirms the contributions disabled people continue to make to the evolving American story, and results in a more expansive, invigorating view of what it means to be an American, and a human being.
Ann Fox is professor of English at Davidson College.