"Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”1 Could these be the words of Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement, or perhaps John F. Kennedy in proposing the Civil Rights Act?
In fact, they were pronounced over a quarter of a century later in a very different political era, by one George H.W. Bush, as he signed into law a piece of legislation which finally recognized the rights of millions of Americans largely ignored by previous attempts to address inequality: those with disabilities.
July 26 marks the 30th anniversary of what Bush called ‘another Independence Day,’ on which the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law. As Americans we can be rightly proud: the ADA was the world’s first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities and was the fruit of a true collaboration between Democrats and Republicans, federal and state agencies, and American citizens with and without disabilities.
Today the ADA, along with the later 2008 Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), protects the rights of anyone with a disability in a similar way to protections given to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, or religion. It covers all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, state and local government services, communications, public buildings, and any private places such as stores and cinemas which are open to the general public.
The ADA is essentially about equality and providing people with disabilities with the same rights and opportunities as anyone else. The act does not specifically name all conditions it may cover, instead using a deliberately broad and inclusive definition that a disability is any physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities.
“By celebrating the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we recognize this important milestone in the civil rights movement and pay homage to the courageous people who fought for these rights” - Kathleen Navarro, Chief Diversity Officer.
As with other civil rights movements, progress was made through the concerted and persistent efforts of campaigners. Although organizations for people with disabilities had existed since the 1800s, the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s failed to enshrine the rights of people with disabilities. It was only with the rise of disability activism in the 1970s that laws specifically recognizing the equal rights of people with disabilities began to be enacted.
In 1977 the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) organized the 504 Sit-in at federal offices across the country. This finally resulted in the signing into law of Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which prohibited discrimination against individuals in the workplace. Meanwhile, in 1990, the passage of the ADA itself had stalled because of issues around access to transportation. In response, campaigners, including many with physical disabilities, gathered on the steps of the United States Capitol building, tossing aside their wheelchairs, walkers and crutches and ascending the steps in an act of protest which became known as the ‘Capitol Crawl.’2
Of course, the existence of legislation does not necessarily entirely resolve issues once and for all. A new generation of disability rights campaigners continue to strive to ensure that the Act translates to true equality in the everyday lives of people with disabilities. According to the Department of Labor’s own Job Accommodation Network, which facilitates the employment and retention of workers with disabilities, some of the current hot topics from a workplace perspective include being allowed leave to accommodate a disability, service animals in the workplace, modified schedules, and parking.3
New York Life Enables
At New York Life, we are proud of our record on diversity and inclusion, having been named to Diversity Best Practices Inclusion Index since its inception in 2017. New York Life was the first company to offer life insurance to people with disabilities in 1896. Since 2017, we have given employees the opportunity to self-identify their disability status, which helps the company more effectively recruit, support, and retain employees from this community. We have been a sponsor of the Disability Pride Parade since 2015 and are a member of the Corporate Leadership Council for the National Organization on Disability, which helps to promote the full participation and contributions of America’s 57 million people with disabilities in all aspects of life.
Our internal employee resource group, ENABLE, was established in 2011 and is dedicated to raising the level of disability-focused awareness at the company among all employees. The group has organized a series of events to mark the occasion of the anniversary as well as Disability Pride month (which runs through the month of July), including discussions, polls, social media story sharing, and even a virtual scavenger hunt. There will also be a virtual discussion about the documentary “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,” currently streaming on Netflix. If you run a business, Global Disability Inclusion have put together an excellent resource of ideas for what you can do to celebrate the ADA anniversary.
"As the largest minority population in the United States, the disability community is an example of this where the intersection of gender, race, sexual orientation, or other aspects of one’s identity impact the way people who experience ableism encounter the world. ENABLE provides resources to employees and delivers programming that educates on this concept."
“By celebrating the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we recognize this important milestone in the civil rights movement and pay homage to the courageous people who fought for these rights,” says Kathleen Navarro, Chief Diversity Officer. “At New York Life, we talk a lot about intersectionality—how individual characteristics “intersect” with one another and overlap. As the largest minority population in the United States, the disability community is an example of this where the intersection of gender, race, sexual orientation, or other aspects of one’s identity impact the way people who experience ableism encounter the world. ENABLE provides resources to employees and delivers programming that educates on this concept, often in partnership with other ERGs. ENABLE has been focusing on disability awareness and advocacy for several years, and the energy brought to commemorating this anniversary has been very inspiring.”
Finally, it may interest you to know that New York Life offers Group Disability Insurance which pays part of your income if you can’t work because you get sick or injured. Read this article to find out more.
1 ‘Americans with Disabilities Act.’ National Archives - Presidential Libraries and Museums. Accessed June 30, 2020. https://www.archives.gov/presidential-libraries/disabilities/ada2.html
3 Carter Batiste, Linda. ‘It’s 2020 and the ADA is turning 30!.’ Job Accommodation Network. Accessed June 30, 2020. https://askjan.org/articles/Its-2020-and-the-ADA-is-Turning-30.cfm
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