I don’t remember what I was doing on Sunday, July 26, 1987, but that next year I was fighting for my life in intensive care after a motorcycle accident. First at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, and then the famed Shepherd Center in Atlanta.
Two short years later on July 26, 1990, I remember being glued to a TV screen at the Roosevelt Institute in Warm Springs along with a group of other people with disabilities watching the evening news. President George H.W. Bush was on a stage with who I found out later was Justin Dart, and Evan Kemp signing the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.
The ADA prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities and transportation.
We listened intently to the president’s speech when he said, “Today’s legislation brings us closer to that day when no Americans will ever again be deprived of their basic guarantees of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
When the story ended, the entire room burst into cheers, and I felt like I wasn’t a second-class citizen anymore. Though not exactly the same, the feeling must have been similar to what many African-Americans felt July 2, 1964, when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.
The date of my injury was June 13, and 27 years later to the day, I found myself in downtown Atlanta participating in a Disability Pride Parade for the ADA’s passage. Ironically, two days before, my grandmother had fell and broken her neck and was in intensive care at NEGMC. She never made it to Shepherd Center, and passed away two weeks later.
In the years since the ADA’s signing, a lot of things have changed. Most public buses and hotel swimming pools have lifts, and most places have become more accessible, but some places still have not complied. Opportunities have opened for people with disabilities, but full participation everywhere remains elusive.
When I run across places that are out of compliance, I talk to the owners, and most of the time they comply. But it is getting old, and one would think 25 years is long enough to learn the law and follow it. It is up to individuals to enforce the regulations, as the law is clear, but there are no ADA police.
Pope Francis has been preaching in his journeys across the world that capitalism without morals runs “counter to the plan of Jesus.” Money is now imbedded in our political system, and it seems both Washington and corporations are focused on the next election or quarter’s earnings while losing the foresight to invest in people.
Millions of people with disabilities live on Supplemental Security Income, which is only 73 percent of the poverty level. If people with disabilities are going to be able to accomplish the goals that Congress set out in the ADA of equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency, our legislators and representatives in Congress need to come together and create solutions. That would include increased tax credits and deductions in several key areas like the housing and transportation sectors to expand accessible and affordable housing and taxis.
In addition, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is more than double that of those without disabilities, and for severely disabled people it is 70 percent or more. Removing disincentives that result in fear of losing what little life-sustaining benefits they do have is tantamount for people to go to work.
One of the areas that the ADA impacted the most — but Congress has failed to address properly — is home- and community-based services. The Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision ruled under ADA Title II that unnecessary institutionalization violates a person’s civil rights, and required states to provide care in the most reasonable setting.
Georgia has five Medicaid waiver programs designed to address this issue, but there almost 8,000 people whose names are on a waiting list for these services. And even if someone on some of these programs dies, the state is not allowing program directors to give their spot to someone on the waiting list. I have written in the past about the countless number of studies that have shown that care in the community is cheaper and provides a better quality of life for people with disabilities and seniors.
Saturday, our organization Access to a Better Tomorrow held the 14th annual ADA Memorial 5K, 9K & 1M races to honor the 25th anniversary of the ADA. We wouldn’t be able to do this if not for those who fought for the passage of the law.
Today, I will say thanks as I do every day for having the chance at another day; being able to see, hear, think and breathe for myself; having a roof over my head, a caring family; and being able to live independently. There are a lot of people having to live in a nursing home or institution that are not as blessed as I am.
Justin Pressley is a Hall County resident and president of Gainesville’s Access to a Better Tomorrow and co-founder of the Disability Resource Center in Gainesville, a nonprofit organization that provides independent living support.