The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed 30 years ago this month, guaranteeing that places like government buildings, public transportation and more are accessible to those with disabilities. And that disabled people can no longer be discriminated against at establishments including potential employers, restaurants and theaters.
While this all sounds great in theory, and the ADA has done a tremendous amount for disabled Americans like myself, the United States has a long way to go to be accessible, inclusive and nondiscriminatory. It always makes me (a paraplegic) laugh when people say to me, “Wait, isn’t it legally supposed to be accessible?” when we arrive someplace and it’s not wheelchair-accessible.
Even the places that are supposed to be undeniably accessible — government buildings and polling locations — remain some of the most inaccessible places for people with disabilities. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, as of 2016 only 40% of polling locations in the U.S. were wheelchair-accessible, making voting discrimination still very real for people with disabilities.
I tell you this not because I want you to feel badly, but because I want you to understand why disabled people in this country are still so frustrated. And why it’s important to recognize able-bodied privilege. A term most are not familiar with, able-bodied privilege refers to the advantages people who don’t have disabilities have, simply for not being disabled.
In addition to benefiting from able-bodied society, every non-disabled person in this country also benefits from accommodations in place to help people with disabilities. This is known as the curb-cut effect.
Here are five things in place for disabled people that non-disabled people benefit from:
1. The curb cut
This is the original benefit that you will hear about and that even I take for granted. Curbs used to be universal until Ed Roberts — a disability activist and founder of the independent living movement — came along. He championed the movement that made curb cuts required across America, allowing everyone from tired parents with strollers to elderly people with walkers, get around their community easier.
2. Wheelchair-accessible bathrooms
Anytime you’re at the airport with a large suitcase or any public place with your child and you spot an empty accessible stall, you have the Americans with Disabilities Act to thank.
3. Elevators at train stations
Accessible public transit stations are fairly new, most certainly since the ADA. This is an instance where people forget who these elevators were installed for. I have been pushed out of the way so able-bodied people could use the elevator ahead of me. Please remember, that while you benefit from these elevators, there are people that need them, so allow them to go ahead of you.
4. Closed captions and transcripts
Have you ever been at a sports bar watching the game but you can’t quite hear the announcer call the play? Or maybe you work in journalism and you need to read through a transcript of a press conference. Either way, you’re benefiting from a movement started in the 1970s, to make television accessible to those with hearing impairments.
5. Website accessibility
Text alternatives to video, simple design and clear contrasts between background and foreground are all thanks to disability rights activists. The thought process behind these site features is to make websites accessible to people with various visual, hearing and cognitive disabilities, yet we all benefit.
How you can be an ally
We know that disability impacts every family and it’s a community anyone can become a part of at any time, so we all need to care about it. Disabled people still face discrimination in nearly every facet of our lives, from employment to ride share services to dating and education, and the movement towards equal rights continues.
Here are three easy ways you can start to get involved to be a great ally to friends, loved ones and strangers with disabilities:
1. Get educated about ableism
Often times people are ableist (prejudice towards disabled people) without realizing it. When you tell a disabled person you’re “praying for them,” that implies that there’s something wrong with their disability. Learning about what ableism is will help you change your own behavior.
2. Support our community
This means shopping at places owned by disabled business owners, seeking out content by disabled people and learning about disability. One quick recommendation is to read the diverse stories of disabled people in Alice Wong’s new book, "Disability Visibility."
3. Speak up
Whether it’s at work, on campus, at protests or on social media. You can be an ally by promoting an inclusive workplace or protesting alongside us for equal access to housing and voting. Every time you speak out against disability inequality, you’re helping the movement.