Marking the 20th Anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act

    Marking the 20th Anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act
    Photo: Adam Phillips
    Bobbi Wailes contracted polio as a child. Today she runs the Lincoln Center programs for disability in New York.

    This is the VOA Special English Health Report.

    Twenty years ago this week, President George H. W. Bush signed a civil rights law that Americans call the ADA.

    GEORGE H. W. BUSH: "I now lift this pen to sign this Americans with [Disabilities] Act and say let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down."

    Congress passed the law to bar discrimination against people with physical or mental disabilities. The ADA governs employers, transportation systems and public places, including hotels and other businesses.


    In New York, the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities co-hosted a celebration Monday to mark the anniversary.

    Hip-hop artist Rick Fire says conditions are far better than they were twenty years ago. But he says being in a wheelchair is still often a problem in his neighborhood in the Bronx area of the city.

    RICK FIRE: "There's a lot of hills and there's a lot of places where I can't go. There's still buildings where I can't go because they've got steps. But overall, it's good. Thanks to the ADA, we are being more accepted, like having a disability. People still look at you weird, but it's like, 'All right, he's disabled now, but it's kind of OK now.'"

    Matthew Sapolin is commissioner of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, and he is blind. His job is to try to improve life for disabled New Yorkers.

    MATTHEW SAPOLIN: "If we are going to build something -- how we build it, how we construct it, so that it would be accessible to people of all types of disabilities. Whether we talk about a ramp or whether we talk about a doorway or a handrail, things like Braille on elevators and signage and things like that."

    Bobbi Wailes developed polio before a vaccine became available in the nineteen fifties. She was twelve years old. Schools then were not designed for wheelchairs. She had to be tutored at home three days a week.

    After high school, she got a job in one of the few workplaces with wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. She worked at a hospital for thirty years, mostly as an administrator.

    Bobbi Wailes also fought for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

    BOBBI WAILES: "Let me tell you something, disability doesn't care if you're young, old, rich, poor, black, white, green or purple. Disability will always be here, unfortunately. So it behooves all of us to make it a world that everybody can live in."

    Even with the ADA, a lot of work remains to reach the goal of equality for the disabled -- and not just in America.

    Marca Bristo heads a group called the United States International Council on Disabilities. She was paralyzed at the age of twenty-three. She broke her neck diving into a lake.

    MARCA BRISTO: "People with disabilities are living in the streets in some countries. It's deemed you have been possessed by the devil, or put out on the street, a shame to your family and really left to live very subhuman lives."

    And that's the VOA Special English Health Report, with reporting by Adam Phillips and Laurel Bowman. To watch a TV report on the twentieth anniversary of the ADA, go to I'm Steve Ember.