There live a people who will never feel the sacrifices their forefathers made to fight for their freedom. They will never truly understand that only a short time ago their people were not citizens in the land of the free—they could be shipped off to an institution against their will, be arrested for going out in public or be barred from even applying for work.
These people will know, though, that it is their right as Americans to exist—to be a part of the fabric of American society.
They will demand employment, because the promise of America lies in the opportunity to improve life through hard work and dedication.
They will expect the right to use the buses, planes and trains that their money goes to support. And roads. And sidewalks.
They will shop in stores, sleep in hotels, play in parks, compete in sports and view the events in their hometowns.
They will communicate freely with other Americans, even with those whose voice they cannot hear and those who cannot hear their voice.
They will do these things because a document, a guarantee signed by the representatives of the people of America, promised them freedom. This paper, this sheath of independence, was signed, not on July 4, 1776; but on July 26, 1990. These people are the first generation to be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But in their lives, these people will not find everyone is a willing supporter of their right to co-exist.
There will be those in opposition. Those who point out that people with disabilities have not found their place in the job market despite the promises of the ADA, even as they bar them from homes and businesses. There will be others, still, who gather up the precious resources of our country and use them to build structures or develop programs for the many in a way that shuts out the few. These people do not believe that disability is a part of life, but an affliction cast on those more unfortunate than themselves. These people will be untouched by arguments that people with disabilities have families to support, to entertain, to travel with. Families that will not use their services if made inaccessible. They will exclude, not with hatred, but with naivety, with their belief that they are choosing not to follow an unjust law.
The people of the ADA generation will have to be strong. They must realize that the ADA is not a floodwater that carried barriers away, but simply a bucket that must be constantly refilled to wash away the relics of injustice, prejudice, apathy and intolerance. A bucket filled with their own belief that as citizens of America they must not only bear the burden of the country’s demands, but must be allowed to reap the benefits of this great nation.
In Montana, we are preparing to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the passage of the ADA. We see the ADA as a paper, made not just of words and legal obligations, but as a symbol of the coming together of a great people. As a house becomes a home through the toil of those it shelters, so too has the ADA become something more than a law. It embodies the ideas, the vision of those who fashioned it.
And although it has done much, we must envision a future where it can do so much more. We will not cease to fashion a world in which we are true citizens, where our voices are the catalyst in our lives, where we shape our own destinies—where we are as free as our families and neighbors to choose our own paths.
Because the ADA is not a cheap gimmick to tug at heartstrings, but a cloak of independence as real as those of us who grew up wearing it. We stride into the world as adults demanding our freedom — our right to be citizens brave enough to continue the legacy of those who came before us.