Referring to the then-recent passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, the New York Times wrote in an editorial: “The act does more than enlarge the independence of disabled Americans. It enlarges civil rights and humanity, for all Americans.”
As with many civil rights decisions throughout American history, we must observe two common themes: First off, that the majority of the credit for the struggle to enact change goes to activists, demonstrators and those who engage in direct action and confrontation. Secondly, that the spirit of equality meant to course through American society as a result of landmark wins for civil rights is incredibly difficult to maintain.
For all of the gains that the ADA has made since it’s passage over 30 years ago, its enactment, both in theory and in practice, leave a lot to be desired. Even taking into account the strides in public physical accessibility of community spaces, there is still so much work to be done, even in its most visible form. The fact is that making things physically accessible costs money, and is not always profitable for a business to undergo, especially for a population that many still seem to forget exists, even though they are visible. Crucially, however, there is certainly more to disability than its visible components.
Andrew Purlang, a non-profit executive and disability advocate writes in a Forbes article on the ADA,
“We value its protections, its guidance on how to ensure equal access, and the way it explains disability issues in terms of civil rights rather than just a personal, medical matter. At the same time, we recognize the law’s limitations, its vulnerability to abuse and neglect, and the uneven record of the real changes it has brought about. The ADA has changed the literal landscape and the conceptual language of disability life in America. But it has also fallen short on full community accessibility, long term care, employment, and on equally protecting all people with every kind of disability, not just white, educated, middle-class people in wheelchairs.”
People with invisible mental, intellectual or social disabilities unfortunately remain under-acknowledged despite the progress that has been made so far. Social infrastructure, education, and economics geared by default toward people with very specific tendencies. These include learning styles, productivity habits, ability or willingness to follow particular directions, sleep schedules and energy levels, the ability to keep anxiety and compulsions in check, and the ability to pay attention and complete tasks in the exact way an employer or manager wants. This is independent of whether or not the people compelled to do the work feel any sort of meaningful connection to it.
The fact remains that in the world as it is currently organized, an individual has to have money to survive. Most people, in order to get money, must be employed, or survive on a usually meager welfare state that otherizes people with disabilities and further alienates them from the rest of the population, especially if their impairments (as judged by neurotypical able-bodied people to be so) are invisible.
It is relatively simple for buildings and infrastructure physically accessible. More ramps, elevators, wider hallways, and other changes to architectural design. It may be so much harder to design a world in which people of social, mental and intellectual differences, along with physical ones, are given the opportunity to thrive to the best of their potential. Such a world is not built yet. It is evident that we not only have to change the physical structures of the public sphere, but also the very ideals on which this society have been based.