Twenty-five years ago this month, Congress passed the (ADA). This law protects people with disabilities from discrimination, including many kids with learning and thinking differences.
No matter where your child goes, from school to work, the ADA will protect her. It’s just as important as the laws for IEPs and 504 plans.
In honor of the anniversary, we interviewed Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI). He supported the ADA when it was first signed into law on July 26, 1990. Then, in 2008, he sponsored and helped pass the ADA Amendments Act to strengthen the law.
Here, he shares his thoughts on the importance of the ADA.
Understood: You’ve been a champion of the ADA for years. Why is the 25th anniversary of this law so important?
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner: The 25th anniversary of the ADA is a huge milestone in the ongoing fight for the rights of the disabled. Before 1990, disabled Americans were subject to false stereotypes and second-class citizenship.
Congress passed the ADA to break down the physical and societal barriers that kept disabled Americans from fully participating in the American Dream.
Like all the most impactful legislation, the ADA’s legal protection has helped spark important cultural changes. Twenty-five years later, we can appreciate how much better things are.
Fewer citizens are judged by their physical and mental impairments. More and more are evaluated according to their character and qualifications.
U: What are you most proud about when it comes to the ADA?
JS: From creating standards for wheelchair accessibility in places open to the public to requiring 911 phone lines to be equipped to respond to hearing-impaired callers, the ADA has transformed the lives of millions of Americans. But, like all major civil rights bills, passing the ADA required time, hard work and a broad range of support.
I’m most proud about how the ADA has brought together people from across the country with different backgrounds and diverse political beliefs. Our nation is stronger when all of its citizens are given the opportunity to succeed.
The ADA remains a powerful reminder of the good work we can do in government when we put aside our differences to achieve a common goal.
U: Your wife was hurt in a car crash when she was 22 and uses a wheelchair. What has the ADA meant to your family?
JS: My wife Cheryl has been a tireless advocate for the disabled and served as a board member of the American Association of People with Disabilities. I know the daily pain she lives with, but she has never let those challenges slow her down.
Twenty-five years ago, she asked me to do what I could to help pass the ADA. I should have known then that the bill’s passage wouldn’t be the end of her advocacy. She has pushed me every day since to continue to fight for the disabled.
Even today, I’m working to pass the Ensuring Access to Quality Complex Rehabilitation Technology Act to make it easier for patients with disabilities to get medical equipment.
Championing the fight for the rights of the disabled in Congress is one of my proudest accomplishments. My wife and my family have been given countless opportunities that may not have been possible without the ADA.
U: Despite the ADA, many parents still struggle to get the right help at school for their kids. What would you say to them?
JS: Our students are our most precious resource. As technologies and teaching methods change, new challenges arise for disabled students, leaving some ADA standards outdated and insufficient.
I would encourage parents to voice their concerns and share their stories with state, local and federal representatives. As elected officials, we rely on input from our constituents to help identify problems so we can find meaningful, commonsense solutions.
U: Some disabilities are easy to spot, but some, like learning and thinking differences, are “invisible.” Do you think we need a different approach for them?
JS: When Congress passed the ADA and President George H. W. Bush signed it into law, it was done with the intent that the law would be broadly interpreted. But a series of Supreme Court rulings chipped away at the law’s expansive protections for the disabled.
I introduced the ADA Restoration Act of 2007, and later sponsored the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which George W. Bush signed into law.
These bills instruct courts to focus on the discrimination a person has experienced rather than requiring that person to prove the extent of his or her disability. That can be especially difficult with learning and thinking differences.
I will continue to promote a broad interpretation of the ADA to protect all those with disabilities—visible and invisible—from discrimination.
U: Some states have passed laws that require teacher training and acknowledgement of dyslexia. What do you think about laws that focus on a particular issue or disability?
JS: The ADA and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 identify and provide protections for disabled Americans on the federal level. That is necessary for ensuring all citizens have equal opportunity to pursue their American Dream.
In our system of dual federalism, states are given the power to draft additional and more targeted laws to meet the needs of their constituents. Often, states will learn from legislative successes in other states and follow suit.
U: There’s been so much progress since the ADA was passed. But what do you think is our biggest challenge right now?
JS: The progress we’ve made in the past 25 years is remarkable, and I’m proud to have been part of these efforts. But we need to keep working to ensure that Americans have access to the latest life-changing technologies.
That’s why I’m currently promoting the Ensuring Access to Quality Complex Rehabilitation Technology Act. The best technology in the world is useless if the people who need it can’t afford it.
As our nation evolves, the fight for civil rights continues and challenges us to take a close look at how our laws promote or prevent our citizens from achieving their full potential. Twenty-five years from now, it is my hope that disabled Americans are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve and seen as equal under the law.
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The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.