Community, Communication, and the ADA
By: Bob Williams
In 1990, President George H. W. Bush said that by signing the ADA into law he was taking a sledgehammer to “the shameful wall of exclusion.” He was not merely referring to toppling concrete barriers such as stairs, sidewalk curbs, and inaccessible transit. He was also recognizing that the most pernicious parts of that wall were heavily fortified by overt and implicit prejudices as well as stereotypical and antiquated assumptions.
Thirty years later, progress continues on both fronts. The country’s architecture, technology, and infrastructure are more readily accessible to those with disabilities. Slowly, biases that segregate, isolate, institutionalize and cause other irreparable harm to those with disabilities are also being eliminated. However, the fatal threats of structural racism and the coronavirus make it clear that far more must be done to secure equal justice for all people with disabilities of every age, race, ethnicity, culture, language, and sexual identity in the U.S.
Communication FIRST, the only national human and civil rights organization led by people with significant communication disabilities, is committed to help meet this challenge. There are currently about five million children, teenagers, working age persons, and older adults in our country who cannot rely on natural speech to express themselves. Due to advances in law, technology, and related factors, more of us now have access to augmentative and
alternative communication (AAC) strategies to communicate and live our lives.
However, many needing AAC still lack effective access to it, and consequently experience increased risk of institutionalization, abuse1, lower levels of education, employment, and poorer health outcomes.2 These outcomes are all tied to age-old biases and myths that brand us as having little to say or to contribute to our families, communities, or nation.3 Black and brown people with significant communication disabilities often fare much worse than
caucasian people with disabilites.4
The promise of the ADA is that we will live as equals in our communities. To do so, we must be able to communicate, connect, and find a shared sense of respect, understanding, and belonging. It is time to rip down the remaining shameful wall of exclusion, isolation, and injustice.
Bob Williams is the Policy Director of Communication FIRST. He has worked on the closing of Forest Haven, the passage of the ADA, and held key roles in the federal government and elsewhere to advance disability civil rights since the 1970’s.
1 “Supporting Survivors of Sexual Assault with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities,” [Radio series episode]. (2018, January 8). NPR.
2 The Promise of Assistive Technology to Enhance Activity and Work Participation. (2017). National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
3 Alper, M. (2017). Giving voice: Mobile communication, disability, and inequality. Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London, England: MIT Press.
4 Fried-Oken, M., & Bersani, H. A. (2000). Speaking up and spelling it out: Personal essays on augmentative and alternative communication. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Pub.; Peña, E. V. (2019). Leaders around me: Autobiographies
of autistics who type, point, & spell to communicate.