As we reach the end of July, I want to spend some time talking about July as Disability Pride Month and the historical events that have led to the disability rights movement. Disability Pride Month is a fairly new designated holiday, celebrated off-and-on since the early 1990s in the state of New York, as well as in cities around the US, including Chicago and Los Angeles. This celebration comes in July as the anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the most well-known law on disability rights. Responsible for workplace accommodations, protection against discrimination for employees and customers, and equal access to public spaces, the ADA was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26th, 1990. But the Americans with Disabilities Act did not come without struggle and protest, was far from the first step in disability rights, and is certainly not the end of the road to equality.
Disability rights organizations began popping up in the United States as early as the late 1800s, and gained traction after the Civil Rights movement in the 50s and 60s. Taking inspiration from the nonviolent protests common among civil rights groups, disability advocates began hosting sit-ins in public and government buildings, including one that lasted 28 days straight, advocating for increased awareness and resources for disabled people. This led to the passage and implementation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibited discrimination based on disability in all organizations and businesses that received federal funding, like public schools and city government buildings. Section 504 paved the way for a right to public education for disabled children and became the template for the ADA, which would make discrimination based on disability illegal in private businesses and all businesses that served the public as well. Other events, such as the Capitol Crawl, a protest where people abandoned their crutches, walkers, and wheelchairs and dragged themselves up the capitol steps to show how difficult accessibility was for those with mobility aids, increased public awareness and acceptance of disability advocacy and contributed to the passage of the ADA as well.
Yesterday marked 31 years since the passage of the ADA, and some things have improved significantly. Wheelchair ramps, braille signage, and accessible bathroom stalls, as well as accessible voting machines, wider entrances on elevators, wheelchair lifts in buses, and more are all commonplace as a direct result of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But even after 31 years, many access needs are still being missed. Historic buildings and buildings that don’t directly serve the public are often exempt, and business owners can put off building maintenance and updates that would increase accessibility if they are experiencing financial hardship. The ADA also allows for exemptions in some cases for businesses with less than 15 employees as well as religious institutions. And despite how long it’s been, many buildings and businesses that should be compliant aren’t and get away with this because of the time, effort, and cost of legal battles necessary to force change.
Beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities around the United States still face hardships that non-disabled Americans don’t face. Despite laws preventing discrimination, only about 18% of disabled people of working age are employed for example, compared to about 60 to 65% of non-disabled Americans. Despite eligibility for government benefits, the poverty level for those with disabilities is two-and-a-half times that of non-disabled Americans. And despite some accommodations being made available, disabled Americans are less than half as likely to have a college degree. (I won’t keep going, but if you want to learn more about disability discrimination and data, check out disabilitystatistics.org from Cornell University). Around the country, many disabled people are poor, risk losing their benefits if they work part-time, and put off marriage due to a decrease or loss in disability income depending on their spouse’s income and assets. The ADA and other laws have improved the living conditions of disabled people in some ways, but there’s still plenty to be done to create a more equal society for the more than roughly 26% of us that have a disability.
With the hardships that those with disabilities face, what can we at the library do? And what can individuals do? As a library, we can educate our community, provide materials and displays, create accessible programming, help patrons find disability resources, and more. We can also support our disabled staff and community with ongoing auditing and updates to our buildings and services. While it’s true we are only required to meet ADA guidelines, we can recognize how these guidelines fall short and do more to make sure our buildings and services aren’t just adequate, but welcoming for people with all different types of disabilities. As individuals, we can call on our elected officials to introduce legislation that supports our disabled community members, we can make our own spaces more accessible for our friends and family, and maybe most importantly, we can learn about the disabled people in our communities, their history, and their needs. To learn more about the history of the disability rights movement check out this article, and for more resources about history, memoirs of activists, and calls to action for how you can help, check out this nonfiction list. Not interested in nonfiction? Learn about the experiences of disabled people through positive representation in fiction, which you can check out from last July’s disabled fiction list.