On July 26, 1990, before a packed crowd on the south lawn of the White House, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.
“Every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence, and freedom,” Bush said.
On Tuesday, residents and the staff of Access To Independence at 26 N. Main St. celebrated the 26th anniversary of that historic day and described how wide those once-closed doors have opened and the freedom they’ve gained.
The federal legislation was passed to protect rights and expand legal protections to people with physical and mental disabilities.
ATI has been dedicated to providing resources to people with disabilities to help them live independent lives for 18 years, so a party celebrating the law seemed only fitting.
It opened with a panel discussion where residents asked questions on a range of topics including resources, their rights, and how to ensure accessibility needs can be met at home and work.
Community Education Coordinator Fran Pizzola said she can remember where she was when the ADA was signed into law. Due to injuries she suffered in an accident at college, she uses a wheelchair.
Pizzola said while she did further her education and found work, it wasn’t easy.
“In 1990, my life was at a crossroads,” Pizzola said. “I was in a rehabilitation hospital trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. And then I saw that and it was like that light bulb moment. I knew it could make a difference in my life.”
Participants also discussed how the ADA has not only helped them, but became part of their everyday lives.
Descriptive video, an audio aid that describes to the user what is on the screen, is used by people with visual impairments for home, work and in public places like movie theaters. ATI Program Assistant Maria Mucaria-Baier, who is also visually impaired, talked about what it was like the first time she was able to go to the theater and enjoy a movie.
“I’m sitting there going, ‘This is awesome,’ “ she said. “That has been one of the biggest (things) that I have enjoyed.”
Cortland resident Bonnie Carlson talked about how, because of the ADA, a woman with autism like her got the chance to prove herself as a valuable worker at a job she’s held for three years. She also encouraged people to educate themselves about different types of disabilities and not to make assumptions.
“Just because somebody’s disability is all in their head doesn’t mean it isn’t there,” Carlson said. “Try to imagine what it might be like if you couldn’t function as well as you do.”
ATI members were in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday lobbying for the passage of the Disability Integration Act, which would allow people with disabilities to receive certain services and resources without being institutionalized.
The fight to expand and improve the ADA continues, Pizzola said, noting while the law was created for people with disabilities, it’s important for people to realize it belongs to everyone.
“Whether you are born into a disability, acquire a disability or age into a disability, this is your law and you should learn about it,” she said. “It’s your freedom act.”