• Julie Sowash

A New Civil Rights Act: From Declaration to Reality


Today, our nation lays to rest the last World War II President and brings to close the leadership of a generation who fought and died to ensure our American experiment of democracy lived on. In the passage of time, since the end of the World War II, our nation and our people have taken tremendous strides forward to create a more perfect union and a more accessible American Dream.

In July of 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In the signing ceremony, Bush said, “Today we're here to rejoice in and celebrate another `independence day,' one that is long overdue. With today's signing of the landmark Americans for Disabilities Act, 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.”

The ADA and subsequent passage of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), also signed into law by President Bush (41) in 1990 are two landmark pieces of legislation to codify our place in the community and in the ongoing Civil Rights movement. We have not achieved full inclusion or equality yet, but as a community, the disability community, we would be remiss not to honor the work of leaders, imperfect as we all are, who saw us and heard us when we were largely hidden away, neglected, given up, and forgotten.

Bush continued, “This historic act is the world's first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities.” When rereading the President’s words from the signing ceremony, this sentence stood out. A declaration – The work of disability activists and our allies until 1990 created the path to a declaration of our rights, not a guarantee. The time for hiding and politeness has passed – we, the next generation, have not only the privilege, but the obligation to continue the work of inclusion. To move from declaration to reality.

As a community, we must continue to turn outward, to embrace the challenges which lie ahead in our continued journey toward full inclusion. We must slough off the fears and barriers we put on each other and ourselves. We must embrace fully our heterogeneous community, the LARGEST “minority” population in the United States and the power that comes with it. In accepting our own community fully, we will also be able embrace our intersectionality with every race, gender, religion, and orientation in the world. We have a voice with them and they have a voice with us.

For business leaders, President Bush challenged, “I also want to say a special word to our friends in the business community. You have in your hands the key to the success of this act, for you can unlock a splendid resource of untapped human potential that, when freed, will enrich us all.” Now, nearly thirty years later, the business community has not taken up the mantle of inclusion of talent with disabilities in their workforce as they have with traditional EEO populations. In so many companies, diversity and inclusion, does not meaningfully include disability and in some, purposefully, excludes us.

The business case outlined by President Bush is now proven. We are armed with positive data and outcomes, but business must be willing to take the leap and embrace the truth our skills and experiences are as diverse as our community itself. Business leaders do hold the key. Will you unlock the door? We are ready, willing, and capable to demonstrate our value in your workforce.

Today, I am issuing a new challenge to business leaders across the United States, if you believe a female, LGBTQ individual, or a person of any race or ethnicity, can do any job in your company, then know and embrace a person with a disability can do those jobs, too. Reject impulses to create employment programs focused on a single type of disability and embrace us as a whole. Find partners and invest in branding and solutions to engage the community and find the talent you need. Accept we will not do it perfectly, but we will do it together. In that moment, like President George H.W. Bush, we will change the world again. We will take his declaration of equality and make it our reality.

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