Alumni commemorate ADA 30 with iconic nationwide disability rights leaders

To commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), alumni hosted a special livestream forum with two prominent national people with disability rights who were instrumental in passing this historic law.

The program was hosted by the Yale Alumni Association and supported by DiversAbility in Yale and the Yale Office of Diversity and Inclusion. The event was hosted by Janni Lehrer-Stein ’78, a disability lawyer and attorney who served on the Obama administration’s National Disability Council, and Benjamin Nadolsky ’18, co-founder and former president of Disability Empowerment for Yale.

They had an intense discussion with Judith E. Heumann and Anthony Coelho, who shared their thoughts on the ADA, its implications, and their thoughts on the future of disability policies, rights and practices in the United States.

Heumann, a lifelong disability rights attorney who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, the nonprofit, World Bank and State Department to promote mainstreaming of disability rights domestically and internationally, played a prominent role in promoting it public support to obtain the rights ADA passed. Her story was recently featured in the Netflix documentary Crip Camp.

Coelho, a former six-year-old US Congressman from California who has spent his entire adult life as an advocate and voice of people with disabilities, is recognized by fellow congressmen as the lead author and sponsor of the ADA.

Importance and impact of the ADA

Incorporated into law in 1990 by President George HW Bush ’48, the ADA prohibits discrimination and calls for equal access and opportunities for people with disabilities in all areas of public life, including employment, education and transport. In short, the purpose of ADA is to ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.

Noting that there are 68 million people with disabilities in the US and at least a billion people around the world, Heumann praised the importance and impact of the ADA, but was also aware of its limitations.

“There are millions of disabled people who continue to face discrimination,” she said. “The stigma of disability in the United States is still so great that many people are unwilling to talk about a disability.”

Coelho pointed out that one of the challenges for ADA is to keep up with the times, especially with technological advances to ensure equal access. He noted that 98.2% of all websites are inaccessible to people with disabilities, adding that although he was encouraged by the recent Supreme Court recognition that ADA also covers digital accessibility, he added that enforcement Fully expected by the Justice Department and other legal and regulatory bodies would be necessary to ensure compliance.

Emphasizing the importance and far-reaching implications of the ADA, Coelho noted that many of the technologies and accommodations required or enabled by law, such as closed captions and wheelchair ramps, are not just for the benefit of the disabled community.

“So many people besides people with disabilities benefit from what the ADA has done,” he said.

He cautioned, however, that in the face of repeated and persistent attempts to undermine and dismantle the ADA, including by members of Congress, constant vigilance is required to maintain its existence and effectiveness.

“The ADA is not something we can just ignore and not worry about because it will be there forever – that’s just not true,” Coelho said. “And what we have to do is keep fighting, keep educating, to keep it.”

Heumann said that many more people with and without disabilities need to familiarize themselves with the ADA, the rights and safeguards it offers, and understand how to identify and deal with discrimination, including filing a complaint and reporting violations.

“The ADA is a great piece of law, but nothing is done without working on it,” she said.

Future of disability policy and rights

Regarding the recent U.S. presidential election, Coelho stated that anyone considering running for public office – be it a small town mayor, the Senate, or even the United States Presidency – should consider what major constituency is People with disabilities are.

“We’re bigger than most other groups, with the exception of women,” he said, adding that the disabled community must use their numbers and political leverage to ensure better opportunities and access for future generations. “It is important for people with disabilities to fight for our rights and help ensure that younger people who follow have better lives.”

A profound change in attitudes in American society is also needed, according to Heumann.

“We have to normalize the disability,” she said. “Disability must move from healing and tragedy to equality and rights, recognizing that we come in every color, in every religion, in every sexual orientation.”

Regarding counseling for students and young people with disabilities, Coelho stressed the importance of self-acceptance and active participation in order to uplift yourself and others.

“You have to accept yourself and find out that you are happy with yourself,” he said. “Believe in yourself and push for the things that are needed for our community.”

At the end of the program, Lehrer-Stein emphasized that while the ADA is the law of the country, the extent to which equality and opportunity actually take shape in the United States depends on how closely Americans work together to create spirit and intent to implement this legislation.

“The Disabled Americans Act was a step towards realizing the power and potential of every American, including those with disabilities,” she said. “The message at this very complex time we are in now is that we need to find these commonalities to ensure that each of us can survive and thrive.”

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