Why the Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act Felt Bittersweet

A few weeks ago, many disability rights advocates celebrated the 27th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed this landmark legislation into law.

I wanted to be in a celebratory mood on the anniversary of the ADA. Yet, as I suddenly remembered how far people with disabilities still need to come before they have the same opportunities as able-bodied people like me, the anniversary felt a little bittersweet.

Now, don’t get me wrong—in spite of the statement I just said, I think that the ADA is arguably the most significant piece of civil rights legislation in the last fifty years (the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965). It is a piece of legislation that improves the lives of millions of Americans, and it is a piece of legislation which, in many cases, enables disabled people to have access to the same opportunities that their able-bodied counterparts have.

While the legislation has improved the lives of millions, it still has a way to go to give disabled people the same access as able-bodied people.

For example, while transit access has improved for people with disabilities, they don’t have access equal to their able-bodied counterparts. One need not look further than the fact that subway systems in New York, Chicago, and Boston, for example, do not have universal wheelchair access (though New York’s situation is much worse than that of Boston or Chicago).

Furthermore, while many buildings now have ADA access, the quality of that access (in the form of things like elevators and ramps) can widely vary. Sometimes the ADA access is top-notch, and sometimes the access leaves something to be desired (everyone can probably think of examples of unreliable elevators).

There is the potential for people with disabilities in many cases to have opportunities similar to able-bodied people like me. But in many areas, that potential hasn’t been fully realized, even though the ADA was passed over a quarter century ago. And there is a certain disappointment, a certain bittersweetness, that I feel as a result of this potential that hasn’t been fully realized.

But why should you all, as readers, care about my being bittersweet about the anniversary of the ADA, let alone one of the reasons I feel bittersweet? I think all of you should care because my bittersweetness is a reminder for all of us that the advancement of disabled persons’ rights did not end with the ADA. Instead, the uneven progress in accessibility for people with disabilities is a reminder that there is still much to advocate for.

Opposition to the Americans with Disabilities Act within American Christianity: A Wrong that Must End

People who read the title of this post may be led to think that I am anti-church, anti-Christianity. And I get that. It’s a title that may come across as directly attacking Christianity.

To the contrary, however, I believe that sometimes the best love is to offer honest, constructive criticism, especially when it comes to matters of justice.[1] In the case of ableism within American Christianity, I offer some constructive criticism: opposition to implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act from many in the American Church is wrong, and that opposition must end.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law twenty-nine years ago as of this Friday. It was arguably the most sweeping civil rights legislation since various African American civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s.

And yet, a key institution, a key group was excluded from the ADA: religious institutions.

Religious institutions as a whole are exempt from the ADA, but I should note that it seemed to be Christians who really took the lead in advocating against the inclusion of religious institutions in the legislation (hence, my focus on Christians in this post). The arguments from the (predominantly Christian) opponents at the time involved the money argument (that it would cost too much) and the “problem” involved with government “intruding” on religious institutions.[2]

Money is an understandable concern, as it costs money to make any building ADA-accessible. However, using money as an excuse to not support the ADA at all (and de facto to exclude a whole group of people from churches), as opposed to coming to an agreement that would implement the ADA at churches and other religious institutions in a way that makes the churches accessible without bankrupting the congregations, does give credence to Timothy’s argument that the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10)—in this case, the evil being the exclusion of people from church spaces and the desire to hold on to money rather than spend it in order to make worship and fellowship spaces accessible to all being at the root of this evil.

I find it difficult to rationalize the “intrusion” argument—the argument that government forcing churches to comply with ADA would be too intrusive. It is wrongful that church institutions have in this case been more concerned about “intrusion” than the fact that the lack of it has literally kept people of various disabilities from going to church, and in many cases keeping people of various disabilities from becoming or staying Christian. I know people who have found themselves spiritually homeless, if not abandoning their faith, because we as a Church have often worried more about intrusion than about the fact that inaccessible churches keep people away from church.

Controversial as it may be for me to say this, religious institutions should not be exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act. Additionally, regardless of what the law is, individual church congregations should try to use the money and resources they do have to make their churches more accessible to people with a variety of disabilities. It is the right thing to do.


[1] Note that I am a Christian, so it is important for me (and other Christians who care about this issue) to give constructive criticism.

[2] https://sojo.net/articles/resisting-ableism-american-church

Why Straw Bans Are About More Than Straws

When I originally published this post back in July of 2018, there was debate about efforts by some companies (Starbucks, McDonald’s) and cities (San Francisco, Seattle) to ban the usage of plastic straws within their entities. Then, more recently, I heard that the United Kingdom will ban straws, among other plastics, starting in April 2020. Many environmentalists think it’s important to make sure that we reduce plastic waste and therefore reduce our usage of plastic straws, while many disability activists argue that there are currently no feasible alternatives to a single-use plastic straw.[1]

Personally, I think a ban must wait until there are feasible alternatives for people of all levels of ability. But I think this discussion on straws needs to be about more than straws.

Namely, we need to discuss our society’s lack of willingness to listen to the physically disabled, and the proposed straw ban is just the latest example of this.

Consider this—in spite of the fact that many disability activists (including many who have the lived experience of being disabled) have been raising concerns about such bans, the entities that planned to ban plastic straws are still going ahead. If we, as a society, listened to the disabled, wouldn’t we at least hear their arguments? Wouldn’t we at least consider for a second why they are saying what they’re saying? These, of course, are rhetorical questions, because in spite of many activists saying that other alternatives to plastic straws do not work, entities are still going ahead with their plans to ban usage of the single-use plastic straw.

Sadly, this pattern of not listening to the disabled goes well beyond straws. Here are a few of the many examples of parts of our society not listening to the disabled:

  1. Airline seats continue to shrink. In spite of many activists saying that airline seats have shrunk to the point that the disabled cannot get out safely in the event of an emergency, there are still successful attempts to shrink airline seats even further yet.
  2. We continue to view people with disabilities as inspirations. There have been oh so many times when people with disabilities have told others—in writing, in-person, through YouTube and through many other means—to stop viewing them as inspirations for just doing tasks in daily life that the rest of us perform.[2] If our society listened to them, then we would stop viewing these individuals as inspirations. But alas, many of us don’t listen.
  3. There are attempts to dilute the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Disability activists have, on many occasions, warned against any legislation that undermines the ADA, yet amazingly such legislation to weaken the ADA passed the House of Representatives earlier this year. If we listened to people with disabilities, such a bill would be in the garbage can, not passed in the House.

Not listening to people with disabilities is very much a pattern of our society. This pattern did not start with the straw issue, and I fear that it will not end with the straw issue. However, it is about time that we change and actually start listening to people with disabilities.

Please note that I will not publish a post on Tuesday, May 28, 2019.


[1] Paper straws apparently disintegrate with hot drinks while metal straws are both inflexible and a safety risk because of how they conduct heat and cold. This NPR piece covers the issues with metal and paper straws much more thoroughly than I do in my post: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/07/11/627773979/why-people-with-disabilities-want-bans-on-plastic-straws-to-be-more-flexible.

[2] If you would like a more detailed explanation of why it’s a problem to just view people with disabilities as inspirations, I highly recommend reading this article from Everyday Feminism: https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/04/stop-calling-disabled-people-inspirational/.

Eight drinking straws in rainbow colors
I can’t think of anything more appropriate for a post involving straws than a picture of straws. By Horia Varlan from Bucharest, Romania (Eight drinking straws in rainbow colors) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Why the Reversal on Cuts to the Special Olympics is Not Enough

A few weeks ago, the Trump administration, under the leadership of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, proposed cutting funding for the Special Olympics. 

It created a huge uproar among Republicans and Democrats alike. Even allies of the president slammed the move.[1] Thankfully, activism worked, and Trump said that he will keep the Special Olympics funded.[2]

The temptation for some of us, since then, is to maybe do a victory lap because Special Olympics funding was kept. However, such cuts are not even close to enough reason for people to breathe a sigh of relief when it comes to this administration’s handling of issues with regard to people with disabilities. Here are a few reasons why I argue that:

  1. Various facets of special education funding have still been cut in the proposed Trump budget. Education Week, which is often considered to be an important source on the education system in America, argued that there was some misinformation regarding the proposed Trump budget, and mentioned the significant cuts of funding for special needs students—a $7 million cut (from $77 million to $70 million) for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, a $13 million cut (from $134 million to $121 million) for Gallaudet University (a federally-chartered private university for the deaf and hard-of-hearing in Washington, DC), and a $5 million cut to the American Printing House for the Blind (from $30 million to $25 million), among others.[3] Education Week offered the consolation that these cuts are unlikely to pass with Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, but it’s still a terrifying thought for advocates of people with disabilities that such deep cuts are even up for consideration in the first place.
  2. The entire Affordable Care Act (ACA), including the provision on preexisting conditions, continues to be a target for repeal among some. Regardless of whether you like the ACA or not, the provision within the act not to allow the denial of health care coverage based on a preexisting condition was important for people who may’ve been denied because of a condition in the past. While I understand the arguments for and against the ACA, removing the provision on preexisting conditions would be nothing short of catastrophic for people who have a disability, and for other people who have any other kind of preexisting condition.
  3. There is a very serious chance that a Republican House, Republican Senate, and Republican president would weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While I will be the first to admit that the ADA hasn’t fixed everything (an issue I have previously written about on this blog), it has made a world of difference for so many people. And yet, members of the House passed a bill last year called the “ADA Education and Reform Act” on what was mostly a party-line vote. It was reform all right—reform that proposed making it harder for discrimination against people with disabilities to occur and easier for unscrupulous entities to get away with such discrimination.[4] Thankfully, the Senate didn’t pass it, but the support for this piece of legislation is a dangerous foreshadowing, if we’re not careful. 

So, should we be happy that there are no cuts to Special Olympics funding? Absolutely. But should we rest easy, given the other areas in which the lives of people with disabilities are going to potentially be harmed? Absolutely not.


[1] https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/436097-gop-senator-says-special-olympics-cuts-will-not-be-approved

[2] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/03/28/president-trump-restoring-funding-special-olympics/3302983002/

[3] https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/speced/2019/03/what_are_the_real_special_education_cuts.html

[4] To learn more about the ADA Education and Reform Act, the AARP has some information: https://www.aarp.org/politics-society/advocacy/info-2018/congress-weakens-ada-fd.html

Some Dos and Don’ts of Behavior Towards the Mobility-Limited

A little while ago, I made a Facebook “public service announcement” about how people should really try to help people who are by themselves in carrying a baby stroller up or down a set of stairs.

Admittedly, I was on one of my self-righteous streaks when I put such a post on Facebook. I wrote it after helping a mother carry a baby stroller (with a baby inside) up a set of subway stairs, even though many others came before I did and passed the mother by. So yeah…I was in a mood to show that the behaviors of those around me were just plain wrong.

Yes, I was pretty self-righteous.

Self-righteousness aside, this one incident made me start to think about not only the stroller issue, but also some other dos and don’ts of behavior (particularly behavior when you are out in public) toward the mobility-limited.

But what are some of those dos and don’ts? If you’re not sure, please keep reading, as I break down some dos and don’ts of behavior toward people with different types of mobility limitations.

Parents with Baby Strollers

If you don’t have any physical limitations, DON’T just stand idly by while watching a parent toil with a baby stroller with the baby inside. For those who haven’t carried one before, they are so heavy and bulky! When I’ve helped in the past, it was honestly a challenge even with two people working on it, so I could not possibly imagine it being a one-person job. So if you’re physically able to help, please offer to help (even if that means missing your train or bus).

So, DO offer to help if you see a parent (especially if without a second adult) with a baby stroller. The worst you’ll get is a polite “no,” and at best you might just make a person’s day by being the stranger who helps out.

Wheelchair Users

Please, for the love of everyone, DON’T DON’T DON’T push someone’s wheelchair without the wheelchair user asking for it. Especially through the blogging world, I’ve met oh so many people who are just pushed around on their wheelchairs without asking for help.

DO push or help someone in a wheelchair, though, if they ask for help. But the key is being asked to help, because otherwise your actions fall into the category of a “don’t.” Also, if you see someone struggling with a wheelchair, DO ask if they would like any help.

People with Canes and Walkers

If you see someone on mass transit with a cane or walker, it means that the person with the cane or walker needs it for some reason. Therefore, please please PLEASE DO offer to give up your seat to a person with a cane or walker. If you are able-bodied, that person will need the seat more than you do.

On the other hand, please DON’T take the action of refusing to give up your seat to a disabled person. Furthermore, DON’T spend 100% of your time in transit on your phone or asleep…because if you do so, then you will not pay attention and may end up blinding yourself to the fact that someone needs your seat much more than you do. (Trust me, I’ve been guilty of such an offense before…I felt very embarrassed when I found that there was a person with a cane in front of me who needed a seat more than I did.)

Conclusion

To some of us, the previous sections of this post only elaborate on obvious etiquette for being an able-bodied person who is a pedestrian or is taking mass transit. To others, though, maybe this post serves as a reality check that we are not really having the proper behavior when it comes to interacting with people of limited or no mobility. Regardless of whether this post listed obvious etiquette, served as a reality check, or was somewhere in between, please post in the comments section below if there are other dos and don’ts of behavior toward the mobility-limited that I should cover!