By Karen Tamley, Commissioner, Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, City of Chicago
July 26th is a historic and deeply personal day for many people across America. Today marks the 27th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the most sweeping civil rights law that protects the rights of people with disabilities.
As the Commissioner of the Chicago Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and a lifelong wheelchair user, I believe that today is important day of reflection on progress made and the work that remains to be done to achieve the ADA’s promise of equality, inclusion and independence.
Twenty-seven years ago today, I had the rare privilege of attending the presidential signing ceremony of the ADA on the White House lawn. As an intern just out of college, I clearly remember that hot summer afternoon on the South Lawn, surrounded by hundreds of disability advocates soaking in this historic event. Yet little did I realize at the time how the stroke of President George H.W. Bush’s pen signing the bill into law, would change my life forever.
As a wheelchair user, I grew up in a time where people with disabilities had minimal opportunity to access the world. When I was born, the doctors told my parents I would never leave home due to my disability. I was not allowed to attend my neighborhood school and was bussed to a school only for children with disabilities far out of town. As a wheelchair user, I could not cross a street independently due to the lack of curb ramps, I was regularly carried by my family or friends into inaccessible stores or restaurants and was unable to ride the public bus with my classmates because they had no wheelchair lifts.
The lack of accessible transportation in America prior to the passage of the ADA was perhaps the greatest challenge facing those of us with mobility disabilities. Without it, we were relegated to second class citizens with little opportunities to get to jobs or fully participate in community life. Though the disability community engaged in a multi-decade long advocacy struggle that included street protests and blocking city busses, many American cities still refused to purchase accessible busses claiming that “equivalent service” could be offered to those in wheelchairs though paratransit rather than fixed route lift-equipped busses.
It was the signing of the ADA on July 26th, 1990 that put an end to the struggle and created a national mandate for accessible lifts on all new buses purchased by transit authorities. Twenty-seven years later, as a wheelchair user, I can now ride any bus in any city in the United States.
Every day that I use the low floor ramp and lock my wheelchair into place on a CTA or PACE bus or take an elevator to a train platform, I am reminded that my right to ride public transit was hard fought and I do not take that fact for granted. On today’s anniversary, I reflect on how the ADA has allowed me and millions of others with disabilities do what everyone else can do: to use public transit to get to work, go to dinner with their family or simply run errands. I am living in a time I never thought possible when I was growing up.
Thanks to the ADA I have witnessed this evolution just in my own lifetime and am deeply proud as Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities to continue the work to advocate for meaningful, accessible and equitable transportation options for Chicago’s disability community.