Published July 23, 2010
ADA is meaningless without action to follow wordsTHE OLYMPIAN
July 26 marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of The Americans with Disabilities Act. I'm constantly amazed by the parade of bewildered looks I get when I remind folks how old The ADA is. I'd like to think this response is a symptom of the fact that as we get older, time's ever-present gap gets shorter. While this may be true in some cases, I've also come to realize that it's an often all-too-convenient excuse to plead the cause of ignorance in exchange for equality. Imagine what our collective and understandable outrage would be if a restaurant denied service to an African-American. Surely, advocacy and civil rights groups would unite, armed with the media’s spotlight to squelch such discrimination. By contrast, imagine a wheelchair user who encounters a step to get into the same restaurant, or who is asked to enter through the kitchen. In response, the patron is offered a string of stumbling and feeble excuses ranging from “I just had no idea” or “this building is too old to put a ramp in.” Still worse, the patron may be offered no excuse at all. In fact, I’ve never been one to believe in supernatural phenomenon, but something very strange occurs when owners see my obvious inability to access their business and look away as though I’ve disappeared in a plume of smoke. Now, I suppose that since this is a newspaper, I should offer some disclaimer designed to appease the call for fairness and objectivity – that some folks, when confronted with the opportunity to do the right thing, do just that. My appetite for offering such guilt-mitigation, however, has waned. Even still, in the two decades since the passage of The ADA, I concede that there have been victories. Without question, persons with disabilities have greater access to education, transportation and employment. And while certainly not being done with expediency, our state’s institutions are being shut down. Recounting these watershed moments comes at a costly price, however. After all, shouldn’t I bask in unadulterated gratefulness that while I have yet to make it to the Promised Land, I am, at least, well on my way? Shouldn’t I accept that true equality can never really exist, and embrace whatever form it comes in? For me, answering these questions in the affirmative would be caving into the same convenient mediocrity and ultimate lie that has besieged so many within the disability community: Be grateful for what you do have and don’t rock the boat, because you never know when someone will take it all away from you. Sadly, this fear all too often becomes reality, as tangibles are taken way as a sacrificial lamb in balancing the budget. For instance, caregiving hours or access to medical care might be slashed. In doing so, countless persons with disabilities are faced with the impossible reality of imperiling their health and ultimately sacrificing their dignity. The truth is that two decades alone can’t erase ignorance or turn back inequality’s tide. Time alone never does. A president’s pen alone can’t force society to cleanse itself of all the hatred and intolerance that exists. No politician, no matter how well-intended, has such power. In the end, The ADA has its limits, too. It is, after all, merely words, and while these words seek to inspire us to embrace something better, they fall into meaninglessness unless we bring them to life by taking action. Shawn Murinko is the state Department of Transportation’s ADA compliance officer and serves as a commissioner on the state Human Rights Commission. A member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel, Murinko, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, can be reached at email@example.com.