Honoring President Bush’s Influence on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

by Connie Welcome, OT

As America mourns the passing of our 41 st President, Mr. George H. W. Bush, what has become almost palpable is how his influence is intertwined within the fabric of our society. There are so many contributions he made that continue to penetrate our current democracy; foremost in my mind is the passage of the landmark civil rights law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. On the day President Bush signed the bill into law, he remarked, “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.” He went on to say, “Today’s legislation brings us closer to that day when no American will ever again be deprived of their basic guarantee of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. Together, we must remove the physical barriers we have created and the social barriers that we have accepted. For ours will never be a truly prosperous nation until all within it prosper.”

The ADA was passed my freshman year in college, so I well remember how it impacted society, from the grumblings of business owners who had to comply with the demands of the law, to the excitement of those with disabilities who could access previously unknown worlds. For the first time in my life, I became more keenly aware that there was a large population of society who did not have access to many things that I took for granted. I began to look at the world differently, seeing it from their eyes. When I would enter a small restroom stall, I wondered what someone in a wheelchair did when they needed to go to the bathroom. Did they just stay home because it was too much trouble? I surmised that staying home was probably what I would have done. This was a time of change, change for the better, and it intrigued me to the point that I eventually went to graduate school and became an occupational therapist, with the goal of making my world a more accessible place.

Today, nearly 29 years later, society often takes for granted the sweeping changes this law made. As therapists, it means that the patients we serve can access public transportation without having to leave their wheelchairs behind, shop at grocery stores without fear of being turned away and bravely enter a restaurant without fear of being refused service. There is access to public restrooms, ramps to access federal buildings and shopping centers, handicap parking spaces and doors that open with the push of a button, crosswalk signs and sounds, braille signs for those with visual impairments, and telephones and television access for the hearing impaired. From the perspective of an occupational therapist, possibly one of the most important changes was employers had to accommodate those with disabilities without discrimination. It meant our patients could and continue to be able to be gainfully employed, becoming active members of society, enjoying the benefits that work and interaction within the environment afford. For our elderly, it meant they no longer had to be “shut-ins”, but could freely access society and be accepted, not shunned.

The ADA not only opened doors for patients, but for therapists alike. It provided a way for me personally to channel my desire to help others and created opportunities for therapists to implement their skills and advocate for their patients like never before. It opened a world of possibilities for successes for many in our society who had experienced few, allowing them to demonstrate their abilities. Without its passage, I would truly not be the therapist I am today, and our world would be a vastly different place!

So today, as we honor the legacy of Mr. George H. W. Bush, let us continue to carry the torch and be “points of light” for the patients we serve. In his words, “Our success with this act proves that we are keeping faith with the spirit of our courageous forefathers who wrote in the Declaration of Independence, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.'”
Connie is an Occupational Therapist and Clinical Services Specialist with Reliant Rehabilitation.
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