The Americans with Disabilities Act is safe for now, thanks to Sen. Tammy Duckworth and the 42 Democratic senators who, in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, pledged to block a vote on the ADA Education and Reform Act last week.
Unlike Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who threw voters with disabilities under the bus by co-sponsoring the house version of this bill, Sen. Diane Feinstein pledged to filibuster and helped stop HR 620, which would’ve gutted the ADA’s ability to ensure businesses are accessible to people with disabilities.
Proponents of the bill argued it was necessary to protect businesses from being sued for “minor” access issues, but the letter made clear that argument was inaccurate and went on to say that, “There is nothing minor about a combat Veteran with a disability having to suffer the indignity of being unable to independently access a restaurant in the country they were willing to defend abroad.”
Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran, lost both of her legs in combat while serving our nation in 2004. This legislation would’ve rolled back the civil rights of Americans like her.
We in the disability rights community know that, while Duckworth is an inspiring leader, she is not an anomaly. There are millions of people with disabilities working, raising families and impacting their communities for the better every day. It’s wonderful having one of us in the Senate, and there are more politicians with disabilities serving office every day due to the influence of the ADA in their lives.
The ADA requires things like curb cuts on city streets to increase access for people who use wheelchairs. It is incidental, though not insignificant, that people who use baby strollers and rolling suitcases also benefit from them. In a world often described in “us” and “them” terms, the reality is much more complex than that. The requirements of the ADA always have always lead to innovation, and, in truth, the benefits of increased accessibility improve lives across the board.
Back in 2006, when blind groups were telling Steve Jobs the iPhone was not accessible, Jobs, as many in the business world are wont to do, replied that the iPhone was a “purely visual device” and that blind users should instead have their own developers work on a phone for exclusively for them. That could’ve been the end of the story if it weren’t for the ADA.
Instead, the government was able to force the hand of the developers at Apple to get creative. That’s because the ADA stipulates educational institutions must utilize accessible technologies. The “carrot and the stick” that the government had at its disposal, via the ADA, lead to an accessible iPhone after all. The first talking computer and optical recognition software was created with blind users in mind. These are now regular features in the smart phones we rely on.
As a blind person who travels a lot, Google Glass’ new technology, Aira, has been a game-changer for me. Aira connects to a human who can give visual interpretation within 10 seconds, and airports are now paying for this service instead of having an assistant guide me around. This is a liberating and dignifying use of technology.
Artificial intelligence is going to change the world for everyone. But in some cases, it can completely mitigate a disability. And in a world where age-related vision loss is something that will effect nearly everyone who lives long enough, the incentives offered by the ADA toward accessibility should really be everyone’s concern.
Feinstein is running for re-election, and there are a lot of forces that say that she’s not as progressive as most Californians would like. Disability rights is not about that. It’s about making sure the doors of equality are open to everyone so that folks with disabilities, who don’t want to be relegated to a life on the dole, have access to authentic opportunities to not only find work but to live the American Dream.
Jessie Lorenz is executive director of the Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco.