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30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act: Thoughts on the History and Future of Disab

July is an important month, thirty years ago on July 26th, President George Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) stating, “Three weeks ago we celebrated our nation's Independence Day. Today we're here to rejoice in and celebrate another 'independence day,' one that is long overdue. With today's signing of the landmark Americans for Disabilities Act, every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence, and freedom."

Historically individuals with physical, cognitive, and mental health disabilities have often been an afterthought, kept secret in families, or housed in institutions. It was assumed there was something deficient and independence and autonomy were not principles that applied to someone with a disability. However this began to change after WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, as improved medical responses allowed veterans to live, but with increasing trauma and physical and mental disabilities. The civil rights movement of the 60’s also took hold of the nation’s psyche and encouraged other groups who experienced discrimination to begin demanding inclusion. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1974, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 all started the process of our country embracing the principle of inclusion for people with disabilities as full and autonomous members of society. Although the movement towards inclusion was a steady drum beat of progression since the 1960’s, it was not without a fight. In March of 1990, the ADA was stalled in the House of Representatives. To protest this stalling of vital legislation, over 1,000 protesters converged on Washington and over 60 individuals abandoned their wheelchairs to crawl their way up the stone steps of our nation’s capital. An eight year old girl with cerebral palsy was recorded saying, “I will take all night if I have to.” The capitol crawl and its demonstration of the barriers preventing access to even our nation’s seat of government helped propel the ADA legislation forward. On July 26, 1990 President George Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act with the simple goals of equal opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities.

The striving for an era of equality, independence, and freedom has been a long fight for people with disabilities and we are continuing to expand this fight to include individuals who may have been initially overlooked, like individuals with mental illness or Black Indigenous and People of Color who also experience disabilities. As a mental health provider, I see the fight to include people with mental illness within the scope of the ADA. Mental illness is an invisible condition that can result in segregation from society, limited access to community treatment, limited insurance covered for evidence based treatment and discrimination in the workplace and housing. Society stigmatizes mental illness as “in someone’s head” as if it was not a real experience. But those who experience depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and any number other mental health conditions know their mental health needs (like time off for mental health treatment) or stigmatization of mental illness (misunderstanding behavior that can appear “dangerous” but reflects a mental health crisis) can interfere with their ability to fully participate in all aspects of society.

This brings me to my hopes for the next 30 years of ADA and inclusion. Not only is July the 30th anniversary of the ADA, but July is also Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. Given the recent protests for Black Lives Matter and the increasing awareness of societal barriers to full participation for individuals who are BIPOC, I believe the future of the ADA and fight for people with disabilities should look at the intersection of disability and other identifies like that place people at a disadvantage in our society, like race. Black and African-Americans have lower rates of accessing mental health treatment, but higher usage of inpatient services, despite having similar rates of mental illness as other general populations (APA, 2017). Latinx and Hispanic Americans face a similar low rate of mental health care access compared to White populations (SAMSHA, 2018). This suggests that although they experience mental health problems at the same rate as their White counterparts, something is interfering with their access of affordable and effective mental health care. The current social centers in our country centers on this intersections of mental health and race. Individuals with cognitive disabilities and mental illness are overrepresented in prison systems; further, BIPOC populations are overrepresented in state and federal jails and prisons. What barriers did these individuals face that prevented them accessing early interventions before they were incarcerated? What societal structures resulted in the use of a criminal justice system to house and treat these populations rather than utilizing the mental health and social services in the community? I believe ADA has a role in addressing these questions its next three decades of advancing disability rights.

This is a time of great change in our country-- COVID-19 and the recent civil rights movements have challenged us to reconsider how our country achieves the principles of equality for all and our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. America have a rich history of civil rights leaps and gains, as evidenced by the 30 year celebration of the Americans Disabilities Act. Now is the perfect time for us to embrace opportunities for change so we can strive to be a more perfect union with a focus on inclusion of all people. How can I, as a mental health provider, better serve and address barriers to inclusion for my clients with mental illness who also experience barriers to society due to their race, gender, sexuality, or class. How can mental health providers ensure the change from in-person mental health care to telehealth care doesn’t negatively impact our patients who may have difficulty accessing technology due to class, geographic location, age, or disability. How do we break down inclusion barriers to accessing effective and affordable mental health treatment? How can the ADA and society eliminate the school to prison pipeline that label BIPOC children as experiencing emotional and mental illness requiring their expulsion and segregation from publics schools and putting them instead into a criminal justice system? I don’t have answers to these questions right now and there are questions I am not asking because I don’t know I need to ask those questions. I will know eventually, it’s a learning process. But in the meantime, I intend to use this opportunity of change in our country to seek solutions, find the unasked questions, and contribute to a society that strives for inclusion for of all its members. The Americans with Disabilities Act has given us 30 years of increasing inclusion and with a new focus on the intersection of disability with other identifies like race, gender, sexuality, and class, disability rights can be advanced ever further in the next 30 years.


Disability Visibility- ADA in Color

Americans with Disabilities Act Resources:

BIPOC Mental Health Resource Guide:

American Psychiatry Association Diversity and Health Education African American Patients:

National study of drug use and health by SAMSA:

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