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2 disability rights activists on the power of the ADA — and where it falls short

On the 30th anniversary of the groundbreaking Americans with Disabilities Act, we consider how this legislation changed the lives of people with mental or physical impairments -- and where it falls short. Civil rights activist Judy Heumann, previously a special advisor to the State Department, and Keri Gray of the American Association of People with Disabilities join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's look at the changes and challenges with a pair of activists from two different generations.

    Judy Heumann is a lifelong civil rights activist. She sued the New York City Board of Education to become that city's first teacher to use a wheelchair. She's led numerous protests to force institutions and public buildings to become more accessible. And she served as a special adviser on disability rights for the U.S. State Department.

    And Keri Gray helped organize people with disabilities in a protest just last month in front of the White House as part of Black Disabled Lives Matter. She is with the American Association of People With Disabilities.

    And we welcome both of you to the "NewsHour."

    Judy Heumann, this has been a cause to you going back to your days as a teenager. What does this particular anniversary mean for you, when you think about the contributions of the ADA?

  • Judy Heumann:

    I think the Americans with Disabilities Act was an amazingly important piece of legislation.

    It has allowed us, as disabled people, to see that our coalition work over the decades before 1990 resulted in an acknowledgment on the part of the Congress that discrimination was pervasive across the United States, and it needed to intervene to grant us our rights.

    That being said, like many of the previous speakers have said, granting rights and really being able to be accepted by society is something that we're still striving for. And I think, when we look at the built environment, including interpreters and captioning and other types of accommodations, other than employment, we have made really great progress.

    But when we look at the data in the area of employment, I think that really speaks an amazing amount about how much further we have to go. And those figures are pre-COVID.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Keri Gray, you were born the year the ADA was signed. You've grown up under this law.

    What has it meant to you?

  • Keri Gray:

    The ADA has meant a lot of different things.

    I think that one of the first things I think about is the ADA, what it has done for our inclusion and perception. So, we know that one in five people across the United States have a disability, but it is still not widely known that disability is not just the summation of your medical conditions, but it is a legal term that gives you access to your human rights.

    So, I mention that because disability is often used as a description that defines people's relationship to their physical and mental health in often hospitals and things of that nature. Most people don't get excited or feel empowered about having to constantly assess their health.

    And there's a lot of people with disabilities that have rough stories about all of the questions that people can have around, like, how much can this person do and contribute to society?

    So, I think, for me, one of the first things that I think about, outside of the specifics of the ADA, is just how it ensures that we're defining disability as a legal term that grants people access to human rights.

    So, I'm excited about what it has done, and how much more we're going to do moving forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Picking up on that, Judy, when you said — you said there is a difference. There's one — it is one thing to be granted the rights. It is another thing to be truly accepted.

    So, pick up on that.

  • Judy Heumann:

    So, one of the positive parts of the ADA is the growing strength of the disability rights movement, the depth of the movement, the racial diversity of the movement that is coming forward, the sexual orientation, religion, on and on.

    People are more able to come forward and be their full selves, including having disability, as a central part of who we are, and not looking at disability as a negative.

    I think more and more people are looking at disability as a natural, normal part of life, and something that we do not want to be seen as a medical condition, but, rather, as part of the civil rights movement, fighting not just for the rights of disabled people, but for the rights of all people who are marginalized.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Keri Gray, those are exactly the kinds of things I hear when I talk to people with disabilities of all ages, and especially the younger generation.

    When you think about priorities during your lifetime, what are they? What do you most want to see change?

  • Keri Gray:

    I think there's two areas that I'm thinking of in particular.

    One, employment is so important to people across our country. We're having to figure out, how do we survive, how do we take care of ourselves, how do we thrive, even, as people with disabilities, and also people with disabilities who have other existing identities, such as race and gender and so many different things?

    And so employment becomes a question and a situation that all of us have to explore. I think that we have seen that the ADA has given us a lot of access to make sure that we can defend ourselves when situations of discrimination do occur.

  • Judy Heumann:

    I think it is everyone. Everyone has a stake in this.

    The entities that are not allowed to discriminate need to understand not only what discrimination is. They need to understand what the remedies are. And I think, in many cases — and COVID is a great example — people being denied the right to work at home who have disabilities or didn't have disabilities, and how we were able to really quickly convert over to virtual.

    Now, I'm not saying disabled people should only work virtually at all, but I am saying that, when a crisis occurred, people were able to do things they said they couldn't do before.

    I believe it is very important for the leadership of business to make sure that their human resource people understand what their obligations are, that they're staff are trained.

    I also think it is very important that the general citizen in the United States recognize the fact that disability is something that we can acquire at any point in our life. And it is not a threatening comment. It is a reality comment.

    And so, in part, what we're saying is, learn from us, work with us, help us move forward in our lives, and help you prepare for your future life or other loved ones in your family.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Keri, I am curious to know how you see — where you see the responsibility lies for making these changes that need to be made?

  • Keri Gray:

    I absolutely agree with Judy. Everyone has to do their part to ensure that we not only have this piece of legislation, but that it is being enforced throughout everyone's entities.

    And so, as an individual, we have to get to the point where we are documenting our experiences and we're speaking out against any situation that can be harmful to us as individuals and our community.

    The company has to make sure that they understand what their role is in this, and how they can be creating environments that are inclusive of all people, including people with disabilities.

    So, I think, when all of us play our role, government, companies, the individual, we are actually getting towards that journey and success of full disability rights.

  • Judy Heumann:

    We have a long way to go.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it is something for all of us to think about on this 30th anniversary of the ADA. I do hope all Americans spend some time thinking about their responsibility.

    Judy Heumann, Keri Gray, thank you both.

  • Judy Heumann:

    Thank you.

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