When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law 30 years ago, it was the culmination of decades of activism, sacrifice and struggle by people with disabilities to protect basic rights long denied.
The New York Times called the law at the time “the most sweeping anti-discrimination measure since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
For the first time, discrimination against people with disabilities was prohibited by law. The ADA required reasonable accommodations in transportation, employment and public services.
But as with many things related to civil rights, too often the reality has not lived up to the law’s promise.
For example, the coronavirus pandemic exposed the fragility of employment protections for people with disabilities. Despite regulations barring employment discrimination, even before the pandemic, people with disabilities had an unemployment rate double that of nondisabled people. In June, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was twice what it was pre-pandemic, at 16.5%.
Is employment discrimination illegal under the ADA? Yes, but our current systems make it hard to prove and harder to enforce.
Dorian Taylor, a Tacoma paralegal at Lavender Rights Project and a disability justice advocate, says the way he sees it, disability rights and the ADA might have opened important doors, but they fall short in terms of addressing the intersecting ways people with disabilities are marginalized.
Taylor said where disability rights end, disability justice begins.
The concept of disability justice was born out of work by activists — disabled, mostly queer, people of color — in the early 2000s. They sought to prioritize the leadership of people with disabilities who experienced multiple forms of oppression stemming from racism, sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, incarceration status and other identities.
As an example, the school-to-prison pipeline affects students of color, many of whom also have disabilities. Traditionally, the disability rights movement has seen it primarily as a race issue, whereas the disability justice movement would contend it’s more accurately a disability issue, too.
Part of the work of disability justice, Taylor said, is flipping our approach upside down and normalizing and prioritizing access needs for everyone. Taylor said if society had modeled itself around the need for ramps instead of stairs, for example, he wouldn’t be disabled as a wheelchair user.
“My needs aren’t special,” Taylor said. “Framing them as special needs makes them seem like privileges. It makes it appear that you’re doing something special for somebody when you’re not, you’re just giving them access. You’re allowing them to do the same things that everybody else is doing. But framing access in that way puts the burden on the person who needs that access.”
What if every job asked every person if they had access needs and helped to meet them? What if every school asked every student? What if it were just a normal part of our daily processes?
People don’t understand the ADA was not a magic solution to the needs of people with disabilities, Taylor said. People think there’s a hotline to call if you are discriminated against or are denied access, but there’s not. Taylor said due to his disability, he has dealt with a lot of housing instability, with buildings not accessible to him. “People don’t realize if a building is inaccessible, you have to sue” to gain access, something that many people do not have the resources to do.
The current movement for racial justice highlights the importance of prioritizing disability justice, Taylor said. There are deep connections between disability and police brutality, as about 30% to 50% of people killed by law enforcement are people with disabilities, according to the Ruderman Foundation, and a third of incarcerated people have disabilities. But Taylor said a lot of people don’t see the Black Lives Matter movement as one that should focus on disability justice and often even some activists don’t prioritize accessibility or inclusion.
“If a movement is not 100% inclusive, then it’s going to fail,” he said. “That’s the first rule of thumb in all progressive spaces, is that if you aren’t centering disability justice in everything, then it’s ultimately going to fail because you’ve already started out your movement with exclusion.”
This can be a hard lesson in the “go, go, go” urgent world of activism, Taylor said. But he said, “folks have to remember that whether or not somebody identifies as disabled politically, there are going to be disabled people in your space, no matter what you do.” What kind of environment will people come into? One that prioritizes their gifts and contributions or one that leaves them behind?
The lessons that disability justice teaches, Taylor said, of inclusion, care and addressing the root of unjust systems, can make things better for the whole society.
“I would like to see disability justice be a part of not only dismantling systems,” he said, “but being building blocks to create a better and more sustainable world.”