Despite living in a world that isn’t designed for us, disabled Americans take a lot for granted. We’re (generally) able to get into the buildings we need to get into. We’re (generally) able to do the things we need to do in day-to-day life. Is it perfect? Not even close. But with the ADA, the US has gotten much more accessible to disabled people. Getting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) signed into law was no easy feat. In fact, the ADA was not the first bill proposed for people with disabilities. In fact, the first version had been almost universally shut down in congress in 1988. There’s a good chance that President Reagan didn’t even know the bill existed. So what changed? And what does the ADA do that past disability-centric bills did not?
While Justin Dart Jr. is thought of as “the father of the ADA”, Patrisha Wright is thought of as “the general.” Wright’s involvement in the passing of the ADA was instrumental. She changed the way lobbyists thought about disability rights, and moving to a more social model. At the time, lobbyists for disability laws were made up of parents and professionals, not disabled people. Because of this, they weren’t always aware of the emerging movement happening in Berkeley.
Like a lot of disability activists, Connecticut-born Wright didn’t always want to go into politics. She had a dream of being an orthopedic surgeon. However, due to a degenerative muscle disease that left her with double vision and legally blind, Wright had to pick a different career. She moved to California and worked in a nursing home, where she discovered the deinstitutionalization movement of the 1970’s. Wright would be hired to run an experimental facility that functioned as an in-between home for those with cognitive disabilities and cerebral palsy. This home was meant to teach those living there life skills in order to be more independent.
Treatment of the Disabled
About six months into the job, Wright was fired after two people living in the house were caught in the same bed together. Though Wright saw no problem with this, figuring that was appropriate behavior for two adults, her boss did. The project soon fell apart and the house’s 32 occupants were all displaced to various geriatric nursing homes. It was this incident when Wright realized how little freedom disabled Americans truly had. She realized that people who are born black or a woman aren’t automatically put into an institution, so why is that acceptable for disable people? Because it’s under the guise of “caring for” or “protecting them”?
In 1977, after she was fired, Wright joined the Section 504 sit-in at the department of Health, Education, and Welfare. There, she acted as the Personal Assistant for Judy Heumann, and continued for two years. Heumann schooled her on the disability movement, and later co-founded the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) with Robert (“Bob”) J. Funk. The DREDF would later become the legal arm of Berekley’s center for independent living.
The first attempt at the ADA was a big failure. Not only was the bill introduced at a bad time, it was very progressive. The bill was introduced in the final days of the 100th congress, so many of the legislatures were gearing up to get home to start campaigning for reelection. Not only that, but the changes that the bill proposed seemed outrageously expensive to businesses. At the beginning of the Bush administration, Wright and the disability lobby took charge.
They set to work getting a more conservative bill. Wright worked with Senator Tom Harkin from Iowa and Edward Kennedy from Massachusetts to write the bill. The team narrowed the focus of kinds of accommodations in the bill in order to make it easier for businesses to digest, making it easier to sign into law. The previous bill, proposed by Burgdorf, Dart, and their colleagues was a more radical bill. Within two years, every business would have to be made accessible, unless doing so meant bankruptcy. The new bill changed that to only new buildings or those doing big renovations. Such changes could usually be made for less than 1% of the building’s cost. The new bill also dropped the provision that a disabled person could sue a business for punitive damages if they faced discrimination. Some people wondered if they were giving up too much.
And that’s only the beginning! The history of the ADA is fascinating, and we’re still living it today! These pioneers of the disability rights movement and their stories are important parts of disability history. Learning about them is important if we want to continue to grow in the future.