On July 22 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., a gathering on Boston Common will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Dr. Cheri Blauwet, a physiatrist in Boston practicing at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Paralympian, and board member of the Boston 2024 Bid Committee, reflects on how the law changed the lives of Americans with disabilities.
When the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, I was 10 years old, a small child growing up in rural Iowa. When I was still a baby, barely a year old, I sustained a spinal cord injury in an accident on my family’s farm. Looking back now, I understand the important way that the ADA transformed not only my own life, but the lives of my peers with disabilities across our country.
We call ourselves the “ADA Generation” — that is — young adults with disabilities who came of age in an era in which the ADA ensured seamless access to our communities, enabling us to emerge out of stigma and instead be embraced as competent, empowered, and contributing members of society.
Because of how much the ADA transformed our society, I was able to dream big, work hard, and choose my own destiny, rather than be identified only as disabled. The generations that came before me did not have this privilege. Akin to the movements for racial equality, gender equality, and so many others, they fought the battles so that I wouldn’t have to. The same has been true for the more than 15 percent of our population who comprise the disability community, including those with mental illness, intellectual disability, autism, visual impairment, hearing impairment, and physical disability.
When I wanted to join my high school track team in 1995, no one told me I couldn’t be an athlete. That was the ADA’s impact. I worked with my local coach, and we figured it out together, enabling me to rise to the top levels of sport, representing Team USA on the world’s stage and bringing home seven Paralympic medals and two wins at the Boston Marathon.
When I applied to medical school in 2003, ultimately matriculating and graduating from both Stanford University and the Harvard School of Medicine, no one blinked an eye. That was the ADA’s impact. I was enabled to stand on my academic laurels as a student, rather than having to prove my self-worth as an empowered member of society. Now, as a physician advocate at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, I see the new ADA generation taking shape as individuals with disabilities discover health, employment, and community empowerment through adaptive sports and a myriad of other opportunities.
And yet, there is still much work to be done. Compared to our able-bodied peers, people with disabilities in this country are far more likely to be unemployed, to live in poverty, and to experience the systematic failure of housing, health care, and transportation systems that place barriers on accessing even the most basic tools and services that allow us to live not just independently, but with a high quality of life.
Locally, because the ADA is not retroactive, entire neighborhoods of our beautiful city are off limits to wheelchair users — myself included. Newbury Street, Beacon Hill, and much of the South End are all enormously challenging for the physically disabled. Many small neighborhood establishments have a single step at their entrance — easily amenable to placement of a small ramp — yet the willingness to prioritize access over aesthetic too often falls short, leaving myself and my peers stranded on the sidewalk.
Looking forward, I envision a world in which the tenets of universal design, that is the design of products, environments, and communication, will be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without having to be adapted or modified to accommodate a segment of the population.
Only if we envision the world through this lens can we begin to see how the tenets of the ADA do not apply to the few, but they apply to us all. The elderly, parents pushing baby strollers, businessmen with roller bags in the airport, a family member who may be hard of hearing, and young children with learning differences, to name only a few, would all benefit from continued improved access guaranteed by the ADA. Hopefully we can celebrate, together, in that empowered world before our next milestone anniversary.For questions about the ADA, call the New England Americans with Disabilities Act Center at 1-800-949-4232. Information and guidance on the ADA are confidential and free.