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ADRS celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act


MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama Assistant Attorney General Graham Sisson, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident as a senior in high school, said he has seen doors open through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in both his personal and professional life.

“The ADA means the world to me as the premier civil rights law for persons with disabilities,” said Sisson. “It has ensured equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities like me. It has had the greatest impact in making sure that private businesses and other public spaces are physically accessible.”

When the ADA was signed July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush, it provided for a freedom that many citizens like Mr. Sisson did not have before: the same opportunities for success allowed to the able-bodied with fewer barriers and more accessibility to the world.

The act was especially exciting for the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services (ADRS), whose mission is to enable Alabama’s children and adults with disabilities to achieve their maximum potential.

ADRS Commissioner Jane Elizabeth Burdeshaw said the ADA gave the department a tremendous boost, because it brought national attention to the needs of people with disabilities and how ADRS can help meet those needs.

“We have always served individuals with disabilities in one way or another, and because of the ADA more people are now paying attention to these specific needs and the need for specialized services at times,” said Burdeshaw. “We can support the community in that way because of our expertise in that area.”

The impact the ADA would have on ADRS and its consumers was immediately clear, Burdeshaw said.

“Our entire mission and everything we do is completely in line with the ADA and all of its amendments,” said Burdeshaw. “It was exciting that it would open the door to more opportunities for the people that we serve.”

Bobby Silverstein, who practices law in the Washington D.C. area advocating for people with disabilities, played an important role in the creation and signing of the ADA.

Silverstein was the staff director and chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Disability Policy in 1987.

The subcommittee was chaired by Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa after Democrats took control of the Senate. The original version of the ADA, which was developed by the National Council on Disability, was rewritten, introduced, and negotiated with the Reagan administration and Republicans in the Senate.

The ADA initially met some resistance, but Silverstein said the bipartisan mission of getting it on the radar of Presidential candidates George H.W. Bush and Mike Dukakis was accomplished.

Both candidates expressed support for the act; when Bush was elected, he stood by his comments.

“He made a number of public statements supporting the ADA, including at his first State of the Union,” Silverstein said. “We set in motion a dynamic which made it hard for people to oppose it given that the president-elect was supporting it.”

The original ADA was proposed by the NCD, which happened to be made up of 12 Reagan appointees. Continued positive political statements made it difficult for the business community and others to oppose the ADA because it received bipartisan support.

Although things did not happen overnight, the ADA continued to gain support and attention. A large part of this is credited to Harkin’s debate of the final version.

Silverstein said he did something that had never been done when he debated on the floor of the U.S. Senate without saying a single word. Instead, Harkin debated through the use of American Sign Language. This, Silverstein said, is what he remembers most about the process.

“The signing of the ADA) is not really where I had the major emotional reaction,” said Silverstein. “It was watching Sen. Harkin using sign language to debate the final passage and then observing the reactions of his Senate colleagues who, all of a sudden, from all over, you saw senators and others come to the floor to witness not only the final passage of the ADA but witness history in terms of how it was debated.”

At the end of his floor statement, Harkin made an incredibly powerful dedication.

“We as a society make a pledge that every child with a disability will have the opportunity to maximize his or her potential to live proud, productive, and prosperous lives in the mainstream of our society. We love you all and welcome you into the world. We look forward to becoming your friends, your neighbors, and your coworkers. We say, whatever you decide for your goal, go for it. The doors are open, and the barriers are coming down.”

After 30 years, there is much to be celebrated, and yet still a great deal of work to do. Cut those reflecting on the law are proud of the impact it has had for people with disabilities.

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