ADA: The Path to Inclusion

Stephanae McCoy

Passion, dedication, empathy, and education, the hallmarks of advocacy, are traits that can prompt a seemingly ordinary person to perform extraordinary feats. One such achievement was the enactment of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) which in reality began many years prior to its implementation on July 26, 1990.

The road to the ADA was long, bumpy and full of obstacles, from 1817, with the founding of the American School for the Deaf (the first school for disabled children in the western hemisphere), to 1986 when the outcome of a report, Toward Independence, indicated federal civil rights legislation was needed to protect people with disabilities. Apathy, ignorance, superiority, intolerance and to some degree even class and/or status are ugly words that only begin to describe some of the atrocities that people with disabilities had to endure prior to safeguards being put in place to protect their rights. Even before Hitler, in 1883 Sir Francis Galton created the term eugenics which subsequently started a movement supported by many Americans whereby laws were put in place to prevent people with disabilities from moving to the U.S., marrying, reproducing and in addition many were institutionalized and put through forced sterilization procedures. Eugenics is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “a science that deals with the improvement (as by control of human mating) of hereditary qualities of a race or breed.”

I was thrust into advocacy 19 years ago when my middle son, Devon, was in first grade and I received an urgent phone call from the principal asking me to pick up my son because he had a violent outburst. I knew Devon had some behavioral issues as I had him tested twice previously (at three and five years of age). The first diagnosis was inconclusive and the second resulted in an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) finding, which required medication and therapy. While I knew it would be a matter of time before the phone call from Devon’s school requesting a meeting, I wasn’t prepared for the meeting itself and felt blindsided as I faced a room full of school officials. Here my little six-year old was hospitalized (a little over a month) due to the severity of his outburst and I was under the impression I was going to meet with the principal and teacher although in actuality it was my introduction to the special education pre-evaluation process.

Words cannot express how I felt at that first meeting with school officials but that conference laid the foundation for how I would advocate for Devon until he graduated high school. From daily report cards that had to be signed off by me and the teacher to weekly calls, emails and regular meetings, I was in constant and consistent contact with the school to ensure that they were following proper special education protocols. Being organized has always been one of my greatest gifts and this made it easy to research, learn and document everything related to the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process. One of my greatest achievements during this experience was calling a special meeting with the school superintendent to discuss the principal’s privacy violation concerning his inquiry into a special program that he thought would “benefit” my son. This faux pas gave me the leverage I needed to have my request granted for my sons to be taken from this school and put into another grade school in the district. The successful outcome of this and similar advocacy situations allowed me to identify a process that works for me:

  • Get angry then lose the anger and replace with passion and professionalism
  • Zoom out and look at the big picture; understand the desired outcomes
  • Zoom in and analyze the details; research and learn everything about the issue at hand
  • Develop a plan of attack; I prefer using an outline to organize my thoughts in a logical format
  • Document, document, document and copy all the key players
  • Hold key players to accountability
  • Follow up

Personal experiences have clearly demonstrated to me that the causes of disabilities are as varied as the types and I’ve learned that while some factors such as heredity could determine a person’s likelihood of inheriting one, in general, disabilities do not discriminate. A disability can occur at any point in life, from birth onward, for any reason and can take on many forms including but not limited to psychiatric, physical, learning, blindness and deafness. In view of the range of types and causes, the same disability shared by two different individuals may present itself inconsistently between the two. For example, there are many types of legal blindness and though I might share the exact same condition with someone else our vision would still vary simply because the spectrum of vision loss is so vast. If ever there was a reason to reserve judgment, I would have to say it would be where people with disabilities are concerned. Misconceptions abound not only about the disability itself but also with the limitations placed on those with a disability. Lives Worth Living, a movie on the disability movement, clearly shows that when people feel a passion for change, they can make it happen regardless of their circumstances. Seeing people with disabilities crawl up the stairs at the Capitol to demonstrate the physical barriers they have to overcome is awe-inspiring.

To live with and overcome the apparent physical obstacles and indivisible barriers in order to carry on with life is remarkable and takes a certain amount of fortitude that many people would not understand. This is one of the reasons why I am so very grateful to the many friends and acquaintances placed in my life with whom I can look to as personal mentors to help me navigate the world with my disability. Many of these extraordinary people are the very advocates like those who preceded them, pre-ADA, who have, and are, impacting positive change in the world so that perhaps within next generation words like inclusion and acceptance will no longer be necessary because this will be the new norm.

Though the ADA, considered the most comprehensive disability law in history, was signed into law by George W. Bush on July 26, 1990; it required governments and programs on the local, state and federal levels to be accessible, that reasonable accommodations and modifications be provided in the workplace, restaurants, stores, public transit, communication, etc. there is still a great deal of work to be done. With the ever evolving advances in technology, we have to be mindful of those who may not have the same access to information; we have to remain vigilant to the point of changing legislation to set new policy direction. In addition, like those before us, we need to continue to handoff the baton through public awareness, education, commitment, and advocacy to make the world a better place.

Read Judy Scott’s first hand account of the signing of the ADA.