During the summer of 2004, I was about to enter fourth grade. That summer was one of discovery and basic understanding of disability identity for me. My parents told me I was autistic in a way that I believed I had magic within me, and the Americans with Disabilities Act existed. I didn’t quite grasp what the ADA implied or what protections I exactly had under the ADA, but I figured it was an important authority to be respected.
I’m no longer in the fourth grade. The Americans with Disabilities Act is now celebrating the 30th anniversary since July 26, 1990, when former President George H.W. Bush signed it into law.
This is the first year I’ve reckoned with the ADA being older than I am as it enters an entirely different decade. I was born in 1994 and I’m about to turn 26. For some reason, 30 feels both young and old; it’s the age some of my friends are turning this year as well. To me, 30 sounds like an age where folks are no longer in transition, and they’ve settled into adulthood in some way, shape, or form. Imagining comprehensive disability rights being around as long as some of my friends, who now are buying homes or getting promotions at work, is more baffling than the fact the ADA is not much older than I am.
Imagining life without the ADA seems scary in a different way than turning 30 someday, especially since so many disabled people I admire and look up to grew up without the rights we enjoy under the ADA and were part of the fight to get it passed.
I’m part of what Rebecca Cokley calls “Generation ADA” – the first group of disabled advocates and young people who grew up at the intersection of the ADA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Cokley points to how Generation ADA had access to opportunities because of the law, and how we were protected on the quest to achieve our dreams.
Generation ADA grew up able to take the bus or able to have access to reasonable accommodations in multiple situations. While naysayers told us our dreams were out of reach, the people who loved us most (and the law) would be on our side. However, protection isn’t as simple as having supportive family members or a piece of legislation. In history, autistic people and others with intellectual and developmental disabilities were institutionalized and hidden away from society. Also in my early childhood came the Supreme Court’s Olmstead v. L.C. decision, invoking the ADA to ensure people with disabilities have the right to fully participate within their communities.
While these victories in the 1990s were important, I regret not learning about them sooner. Law schools should emphasize how intersectional disability is with all other forms of marginalization. Buck v. Bell, where Oliver Wendell Holmes outrageously claimed that “three generations of imbeciles is enough” in a 1927 forced sterilization case, is a painful reminder of our nation’s history of eugenics combined with ableism and sexism. When we learned about Olmstead, I wish I knew that the lead plaintiff, Lois Curtis, was a Black woman with an intellectual disability. That fact is especially important, as we must continue to amplify multiple marginalized disabled people who always did the work (further back in history, before my time: Brad Lomax and the Black Panther party were instrumental during the 504 sit-ins). Without this progress and the broad coalitions that shaped disability history, I wonder how many of my disabled siblings would still be in institutions or denied countless opportunities for access and inclusion. How many of us would be denied the dream to go to law school to become an attorney?
That isn’t to say law school is easy while disabled – barriers to access still exist for disabled students. However, today’s law students and members of Generation ADA are forming campus affinity groups, and the National Disabled Law Students Association is helping to lead the charge towards making sure campus culture is more accessible.
I graduated law school two years ago. After being sworn into the Florida Bar, I was labeled as Florida’s first openly autistic attorney – a title I have mixed feelings about because I know other autistic attorneys exist even if they aren’t open. Being open should be safe for all disabled or autistic folks in a more understanding world. Even so, lawyers with disabilities still face barriers today. Title I of the ADA prohibits employment discrimination to ensure disabled job applicants and employees like me are able to have access to competitive, integrated employment in settings with 15 or more employees. However, plenty of lawyers with disabilities may not disclose even with these protections because of the profession’s rush to judgment, noting disability as a perceived weakness. Lawyers with disabilities report experiencing discrimination alongside subtle and overt biases more often than expected, according to a new American Bar Association study.
The ADA is not perfect. There are still many forms of ableism and barriers to access that the ADA doesn’t cover outside the legal industry. The coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately affecting people with disabilities and the ADA is being weaponized in a way that puts public health in jeopardy. In the fight for racial justice, it’s worth noting disabled people of color are more likely to be victims of police brutality. Society is not fully accessible, but the ADA is crucial in eliminating ableism.
Even with its imperfections and a global pandemic occurring, the ADA’s 30th anniversary is an achievement worth celebrating this year. 2020 has been monumental in terms of disability representation – we’ve had disability history on Netflix for the first time in Crip Camp. In politics, most presidential candidates had disability policy platforms. In entertainment, an autistic actress played an authentic autistic character. There are more neurodiverse #OwnVoices in fiction, and there is crucial nonfiction literature.
The ADA isn’t a social justice spell granting access and anti-discrimination everywhere I go. I have come to learn that it is impossible to mess with the determined spirit of disabled activists who fought for its passage. Activists, law students, and attorneys continue to fight for disability rights and the doors the Act opened for countless young disabled Americans – and lawyers – who don’t know what life is like without it.
Haley Moss is a Florida attorney, artist, author, and autistic advocate who is passionate about disability issues. She is currently writing a book about neurodiversity for lawyers.
Suggested citation: Haley Moss, Reflections on #ADA30 as a Young Lawyer with a Disability, JURIST – Professional Commentary, July 26, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/07/haley-moss-ada30-reflections/.
This article was prepared for publication by Cassandra Maas, a JURIST Staff Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at email@example.com