The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law 25 years ago on Sunday.
The act was a major step toward full-scale accessibility for citizens with disabilities, but according to many, there are still substantial barriers in place.
Mary Hartley, lead consultant of policy and advocacy for the United Way of Allegheny County’s “21 and Able” program, said there is still room for improvement.
“My hope is that in 25 years, we’re sitting in here and we’re not talking about this at all,” Hartley said. “That this is really the fabric of life, that our community is completely accessible, and there’s visitable homes and there’s universal design everywhere.”
Paul O’Hanlon, disability rights attorney and member of the City-County Task Force on Disabilities, agreed improvements can still be made, but celebrated how far Pittsburgh and the rest of the country have already come.
“I live in Squirrel Hill,” O’Hanlon said. “Most of Squirrel Hill businesses are accessible. Go to South Side or Bloomfield -- most of them are one step up, and Oakland, too. So it really depends. Certain business districts are still really frozen in time.”
Accessibility to the physical environment is just one portion of the ADA. Employment opportunities and the general stigma still associated with people with disabilities frustrate activists even now.
Gabriel McMorland, Pittsburgh Accessibility Meetup co-organizer, said it is important to keep a broad focus when discussing problems faced by people with disabilities, because they often overlap with other problems in society.
“We’re not going to get all of the stuff done that we need to until we look at this as a broad, intersectional picture,” McMorland said. “So we can’t address disability and accessibility without thinking about poverty, and about racism and gender discrimination, right? Like, we can’t separate it. It’s all, unfortunately, they’re all tangled together.”
Josie Badger, youth director for the Parent Education and Advocacy Leadership Center, said part of the battle is letting young adults know that things are not set in stone, and that their voices matter.
“The mere presence that we’re actually here talking about this is an amazing step in showing that we want to talk about this,” Badger said, “We want to talk about change, and it’s really exciting to hear that.”
Badger said one of the ways they are helping youth with disabilities accept themselves for who they are is by encouraging them to practice what she calls “the selfies.”
“It’s about self-awareness: knowing yourself,” she said. “Then self-acceptance: being okay with who you are. Then going on to self-advocacy: speaking out and telling people about your needs. And then self-determination, which is about directing your own life.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 56.7 million Americans have a disability as of 2010, or nearly 19 percent of the population.