DES MOINES — President George H.W. Bush was on board, and former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin and his colleagues made sure it passed the U.S. Senate. But in early March of 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights bill for disabled individuals, was stalled in the House.
“It got stuck in a lot of different committees,” Harkin remembered. “We were all worried that we weren’t going to get the bill.”
It wasn’t until members of ADAPT, a disability activist organization, showed up at the U.S. Capitol and staged a protest for the television cameras — taking themselves voluntarily out of their wheelchairs and climbing the Capitol building steps however they could — that attention became focused on the cause.
“To me, that remains an iconic moment,” Harkin said. “When the evening news carried that and it became global, I think that just provided the spark — that last little thing we needed to convince people in the House and others that we needed to get this bill through.”
The protest worked, and the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law July 26, 1990.
But even as he celebrates the law he introduced 30 years ago — meant to give those 1 in 5 Americans with a disability the opportunity for full participation in society — Harkin bemoans the goals had not all been achieved, citing unemployment, technology that failed to serve disabled people and inaccessible housing.
“The younger generation — the ADA generation — don’t be satisfied with what you got. We’ve got a ways to go,” Harkin said.
Harkin and other former legislators gathered on a Zoom call as part of a week of events surrounding the ADA anniversary by RespectAbility, a national disability advocacy nonprofit. The sessions are being held from noon to 2 p.m. through Friday.
Tucker Cassidy, a disability rights activist who lives in Waterloo, said the fact the sessions were being held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic was a boon to the disabled community.
“Everybody knows what a Zoom conference is now,” Cassidy said. “If we can make them more accessible, we will show up. It’s just that, if you’ve got the door locked, how are people going to get in?”
The same is true with telehealth and beginning to happen with education, he noted.
But many other facets of his life are still barricaded: It took Cassidy 12 years to find an accessible apartment through HUD, for example. Now that he owns his own home, he tried shopping in person for furniture at a Waterloo furniture store and couldn’t get his chair through the door.
The owner apologized, Cassidy noted, but also said that building had been renovated within the past year. But because it was “historic,” building owners could ignore accessibility provisions in the ADA.
“They didn’t even think about that fact. They didn’t take the opportunity to make it an accessible building,” he said. “It blew me away: Here we are 30 years later, and we’re still having to run into stuff like that. In short, we have a long way to go.”
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