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A Letter to the Americans with Disabilities Act on Its 32nd Birthday

by Sandy Ho

Dear 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),

I’m writing to you while sitting on an accessible Amtrak heading home to Boston after a few days in New York City, during which I attended the Presidents’ Council on Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy Meeting in my role as the Director of the Disability Inclusion Fund. A few hours to myself felt like as good a time as any to write this letter to you on the occasion of your 32nd birthday! 

Every year around this time, I look back at the historic photo taken on July 26, 1990, in which President George H.W. Bush is seated at a table signing you into existence. Next to him was Evan Kemp, Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Justin Dart, Chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. Behind him was Reverend Harold Wilk and Swift Parrino, Chairperson of the National Council on Disability. I can imagine the excitement among the crowds that day that included people with disabilities, allies, family members, civil rights leaders, and policymakers cheering with pride, joy, and anticipation for a future where, at long last, disability civil rights are more than wishful thinking but actually enshrined into law. 

I’m not much older than you, ADA. At the time of your historic birth, I was likely enjoying my summer vacation before starting kindergarten, completely oblivious to you, to the disability community, to disability rights, and even to the idea of civil rights. But over the years, you and I have gone about our lives, sometimes in tandem and other times in conflict and disappointment. With that in mind, I wanted to share some thoughts with you about what a future could—and should—look like at this particular moment for our country and community.

The moment that photo captured, your passage, was just the beginning. As we both know by now, the first step in every struggle for civil rights is necessary but hardly enough. It is not enough for the present we live in where 50% of people killed by law enforcement are disabled, people with disabilities are three times as likely as nondisabled people to experience food insecurity, and despite the fact that disabled people have protected rights, our community continues to experience inaccessibility and discrimination in so many areas of life. And on what must have been a sweltering July day in D.C. all those years ago, as heavy and muggy as that heat was – it could not have prepared anyone for the heaviness of COVID-19 as a mass disabling event—including more than 90,000 deaths in nursing homes since the start of the pandemic.

But none of this information is painting a new or even an unknown reality for you. Together, we have witnessed these events and tried to be in service to that sense of possibility and accountability that led to the broader disability rights community and leaders to work towards your passage. And there are indeed wins and progress (including you) to celebrate. We must celebrate the ways grassroots disabled leaders call in fellow social justice comrades, because our collective liberation must hold space for all of us. We must celebrate because the ingenuity of disabled lived-experiences and ways of supporting our own is led and fueled by self-determination, dignity, and honoring the worthy humanity that exists in everyone. We must celebrate because our joy is a reminder to our democracy that 32 years have passed and still, our communities continue to fight to be heard, counted, and seen. We must celebrate as a way to call attention to the fact that generations of equality will be meaningless when disability justice is not part of our most urgent fights.

Joy was the common thread throughout the most recent gathering of the Presidents’ Council on Disability Inclusion, as we came together with COVID-safety precautions in place. It was joyous to be with some of the Disability Inclusion Fund’s grantees: Chainless Change, Inevitable Foundation, Disability Lead, and L&J Empowerment. It was joyous to bring people together who might not otherwise share space, a meal, a conversation. It was joyous to center their leadership in disability justice and connect networks of civic and social justice leaders who are doing vital work, from expanding authentic representation of disability in media, to expanding access to mental health services among Black communities, to directly drawing from lived experiences as a strategy towards recovery and decarceration. The time we spent together contributed to identifying more meaningful ways philanthropy can be held accountable to the broader disability justice community in ways that are led by, and for us.

Change happens because we are naming issues that are important, and also when we put action and resources in thoughtful trust with our movement leaders. So, ADA, as you embark on another adventure around the sun, here is what I would like those who are celebrating you to do:

  • Recognize that your passage was not enough. It was among a series of strong action towards disability equality, but growth means recognizing limitations.
  • Remember that there are many who continue to live in your shadows, even as we celebrate and honor those who helped to shepherd in the powerful ways disability rights are now enshrined in our democratic institutions.
  • Convene more disabled leaders and thought partners, and give space for disabled people—particularly BIPOC femmes, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, and trans disabled people who are not only underresourced but overlooked, even by the immense umbrella of protections that you offer.

ADA, though there is so much you have done for the disability community, you must be humble. We all must lift up those who are doing the bold, courageous, and deep movement-building work to upon the future you helped to imagine, working towards one that is more liberatory, free, and ultimately, joyous.

Sincerely yours,
Sandy Ho

About the Author: Sandy is the program director of the Disability Inclusion Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, and the founder and co-organizer of the Disability & Intersectionality Summit.