When I was 16, I injured my skull in an automobile accident. In a flash, I went from being a normal teenager to living with epilepsy, although it would take a year for doctors to pinpoint the cause of my new disability, and several more years before I was informed of it — my disability was treated with shame, and kept a secret. But that accident, and the epilepsy that came with it, has shaped every aspect of my life since.
More than anything, my disability has taught me that life is about compromise. I didn’t want to have epilepsy. It has brought me struggle and stigma; the specter of suffering a seizure hung over every aspect of my life, and once I was branded as “disabled” I found myself blocked from so many aspects of normal life. I was denied job interviews time and time again. I couldn’t even drive a car.
So when I became a congressman, it was my greatest honor to fight for all Americans with disabilities, and sponsor the Americans With Disabilities Act, which celebrated its 30th birthday this year. The passage of the ADA changed my life, and not only because it is my greatest professional achievement. It changed my life because it removed the stain that disability wrought. It gave me, and all Americans with disabilities, a chance at genuine civil rights.
The United States of America that passed the ADA, however, looked very different from the United States of America today. Americans’ lives today are not marked only by a need for physical access. We are deeply reliant on the digital sphere. Equal access to websites and Internet-based commerce, civic engagement and education is as critical a need as ramps, parking spaces for people with disabilities, and retrofitted public restrooms.
We all need the internet to accomplish just about everything, especially in our post COVID-19, physical distancing world. This is especially true for the disability community. Our reliance on the internet is particularly critical because so many of us do not have the mobility and freedom of access and movement that the abled community often enjoys.
When I introduced the ADA, I could not have imagined just how critical of a tool the internet would become, but our intent at that time was that the ADA cover anything and everything related to access for all Americans. This now includes digital content, and U.S. federal courts are largely in agreement with that interpretation. In fact, a blind individual sued Domino’s Pizza, claiming its website and app are not accessible. That case made its way to the Supreme Court, but the court denied the petition, upholding the lower court’s ruling in favor of accessibility.
There’s no question that the next frontier in fighting for accessibility in America is for equal access to online content. But as our lives have moved increasingly to the digital sphere, our debates have become increasingly partisan. I am not pro-Democrat or Pro-Republican in these debates. I am pro-access.
Disabilities do not discriminate by politics or personalities. A life-changing disability can strike any American at any time, and whom they prefer in the voting booth is as irrelevant as their age, race or gender. Equal access is an issue that cuts across all lines. It is, in many ways, the great equalizer.
As I celebrate the ADA’s remarkable birthday this year, my deepest wish is that the debate around the evolution of disability access and civil rights in America can be free of political rancor. I am a Democrat, and the day that President George H. W. Bush, a Republican, signed the ADA into law was one of the proudest days of my life.
I can think of no better way to honor the legacy of 30 years of the ADA than for Democrats and Republicans to make disability rights the issue that truly unites both sides of the aisle. Today our nation’s policymakers, spurred by the urgency to adapt to the digital age, are hard at work creating plans that gracefully transition the gains we made in 1990 to now apply them to the digital era. These plans will allow a citizen who wants to pay his gas bill online the same access via HTML code and closed captioning that would be provided in a physical space via ramps, parking, signage and restrooms. These plans mean that the next superhighway of our lives, the one that is happening online and in the virtual sphere, will be open to all of us. These plans must be passed, and they must be passed quickly.
Let’s not allow partisan rancor to stop our progress. Let’s unite behind an issue that sees no political party, color or creed. Disabilities can affect any of us, and responsibilities for access are in the hands of all of us.
We still have a long way to go in terms of disability access. And if we work together, we can get there. This is the nation of “E Pluribus Unum” and of “United We Stand.” Thirty years after the passage of the ADA, those brave and resonant words must continue to ring true.
Tony Coelho is a former congressman and a current board member of AudioEye.
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