This post is by Mark Roithmayr, Autism Speaks’ President.
Earlier this week I had the honor and privilege of traveling to Washington, D.C., for special ceremonies to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The term “landmark legislation” is greatly overused, but like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this law literally changed life for millions of people. The ADA has helped level the playing field for people with disabilities in this country, providing important civil rights protections and equal opportunities in the workplace and elsewhere.
As I took part in ceremonies at the Capitol Rotunda and, later, the White House, standing among other advocates for various causes, I found myself reflecting on those past two decades.
Twenty years ago, America barely recognized the word autism, nor understood what it meant for individuals to live with autism. Autism was absent from those founding moments two decades ago. Yet during the ceremonies this week, autism was acknowledged over and over again by elected officials, colleagues and advocates alike. From the floor of the House, Representative Patrick Kennedy referenced autism as one of two federal imperatives for increased funding. Later at the White House ceremonies, President Obama’s Domestic Policy Director Melody Barnes cited the autism movement as a being the central part of today’s disability movement. Next, actor Robert David Hall –himself a double amputee following a devastating car accident – took the opportunity to discuss his twin nephews, both on the autism spectrum, while introducing President Obama, poignantly telling the story of how his brother and sister-in-law have to “climb mountains every day.”
Listening to the group of eloquent speakers, all I could think about was how incredibly far the autism advocacy movement has come in just a few short years. Not only was the day remarkable for the recognition of autism and its overwhelming prevalence in our society – our 1 in 110 children – our 1 in 70 boys, but that these numbers have climbed to new heights being diagnosed more often than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined. There is no doubt that autism is now at the fore of the public’s consciousness as a disorder that is recognized as a national health crisis and a top public health priority
But the ADA ceremonies were about something even larger than our autism movement. It was a day to recognize disability rights as a core civil rights issue and a cause not for partisanship, but for uniting humanity at large. The quotes ran from Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King. President Obama honored President George H. Bush who passed the original legislation. Representative John Boener (R, OH) applauded James Langevin (D, RI) – the first quadriplegic to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives – who served as Speaker of the House for the day, the first time that Congress was presided over from a wheelchair.
Reflecting, I truly believe the ADA commemoration was about building on our autism victories, small and large, toward our collective future. The abilities of our community, our children, our teens, our young adults and our adults, are extraordinary and we have the collective will and the moral imperative to create an even better future. The path is clear.
- Our autism community has the ability learn – but we need to ensure accessibility to education through the life span.
- Our autism community has the ability to work – but we need to ensure accessibility to jobs.
- Our autism community has the ability to live independently – but we need to ensure accessibility to housing; and not least,
- Our autism community has the ability to be part of the wonderful social fabric of America – but we need to ensure access to community resources.
In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable American right” and the autism community deserves no less.
We also encourage you to read Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act with Substance blog post by Kareem Dale.