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Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Posted on Friday, July 24, 2020

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President Bush Signing the Americans with Disabilities Act, The White House, Washington, D.C., July 26, 1990

Pictured in the front row from left to right are Evan Kemp, Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; President George H.W. Bush; and Justin Dart, Chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. In the back row from left to right are Rev. Harold Wilke; and Swift Parrino, Chairperson, National Council on Disability.

When President Bush autographed the photo for Justin Dart, he wrote, "To Justin Dart. Without your drive, your 'believing' and your leadership this day would not have been possible. With respect and friendship, George Bush."

Toward Independence

On July 26, 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) at The White House. In his remarks, President Bush referenced The Declaration of Independence in terms of its inspiration for then contemporaneous events including the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany on November 9, 1989 and the events leading up and including the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Today, I am signing S. 933, the 'Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.' In this extraordinary year, we have seen our own Declaration of Independence inspire the march of freedom throughout Eastern Europe. It is altogether fitting that the American people have once again given clear expression to our most basic ideals of freedom and equality. The Americans with Disabilities Act represents the full flowering of our democratic principles, and it gives me great pleasure to sign it into law today.

In 1986, on behalf of President Reagan, I personally accepted a report from the National Council on Disability entitled 'Toward Independence.' In that report, the National Council recommended the enactment of comprehensive legislation to ban discrimination against persons with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is such legislation. It promises to open up all aspects of American life to individuals with disabilities -- employment opportunities, government services, public accommodations, transportation, and telecommunications.

This legislation is comprehensive because the barriers faced by individuals with disabilities are wide-ranging. Existing laws and regulations under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 have been effective with respect to the Federal Government, its contractors, and the recipients of Federal funds. However, they have left broad areas of American life untouched or inadequately addressed. Many of our young people, who have benefited from the equal education opportunity guaranteed under the Rehabilitation Act and the Education of the Handicapped Act, have found themselves on graduation day still shut out of the mainstream of American life. They have faced persistent discrimination in the workplace and barriers posed by inaccessible public transportation, public accommodations, and telecommunications...

As The Declaration of Independence has been a beacon for people all over the world seeking freedom, it is my hope that the Americans with Disabilities Act will likewise come to be a model for the choices and opportunities of future generations around the world.”

Ever since the first July 4th celebration in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777, the United States has celebrated Independence Day on the Fourth of July. It was fitting that the ADA was signed during July - Independence month.

The ADA is an equal opportunity law for those with disabilities. According to the United States Department of Justice,

“The ADA is one of America’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life… the ADA is an ‘equal opportunity’ law for people with disabilities.”

According to Gerard Robinson, Adjunct Fellow of the the American Enterprise Institute, in an article entitled "The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Declaration of Independence", the ADA is directly linked to the Civil Rights Movement,

"President Bush acknowledged that the words of the Declaration [of Independence] were for more than 150 years only words for millions of African Americans. He then said, 'The Civil Rights Act of [1964] took a bold step towards righting that wrong. But the stark fact remained that people with disabilities were still victims of segregation and discrimination, and this was intolerable.' Prior to ADA, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Education for All Handicapped Act of 1975 (which became the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1990) afforded federal protections to people with disabilities. Those laws provided some support to the disability community but room for improvement was needed to provide more liberty to all. Thus, ADA was another step toward the Declaration’s principles. (Though it’s worth noting, with some irony, that ADA afforded African Americans and other racial groups with disabilities new liberties their skin color did not.)"

On The Constitutional Walking Tour, we discuss the Civil Rights Movement, including how the Liberty Bell became a symbol of the anti-slavery movement and the Liberty Bell’s proclamation of liberty for ALL became a rallying cry of the abolitionist movement. After the 13th Amendment abolished slavery on December 6, 1865, other civil rights movements in the United States began to adopt the Liberty Bell as a symbol of their respective movements.

Over time, the Liberty Bell became an icon for many movements including the Labor Rights struggle, the Civil Rights Movement for African Americans (see the history of slavery, the Underground Railroad and the condemnation of slavery), the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and LGBT Civil Rights Movement. Before long, the Liberty Bell became associated with many American struggles of liberty and as a national symbol of all the liberties that had been fought for by American Citizens. Today, the Liberty Bell is displayed right across the street from Independence Hall, America's Birthplace, where The Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776.

In the spirit of a picture is worth a thousand words, the following post from Facebook speaks volumes about how the ADA has evolved over time, and how our society has embraced the spirit of inclusion for those with disabilities.

Independence Park Ranger Providing Visitor Experience to Blind Student at the Liberty Bell on a School Field Trip (Credit: Facebook posts from Rachel Sciotino, Jennifer Llewellyn Ruth and Independence National Historical Park)

On October 4, 2019, Rachel Sciotino posted the following on Facebook,

"Thank you, Jennifer Llewellyn Ruth, for capturing the best moment of our Philadelphia field trip. This is a picture of Philly's finest not only removing the boundary ropes or our blind student, but guiding him to feel all of the parts of the Liberty Bell and explaining everything to him personally. Well done, Sir. We are grateful and proud."

Independence National Historical Park re-posted this on October 21, 2019,

"The visitor experience is, and always will be, number one for us! We strive to make life-long impressions for each and every visitor. National Park Service."

Bravo Independence National Historical Park on making this life-long impression for this student visiting on his school field trip! 

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