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Kornbluh: Remembering the ADA

Many Americans were surprised that some of the most militant responses to the proposed Republican health care plan came from disability activists – who staged a “die-in” outside the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that resulted in a woman being removed from her wheelchair as she was arrested. But in fact, the disability rights movement has for decades employed a battery of tactics, including mass protest and civil disobedience.

The passage of twenty six years has conferred a kind of nostalgic glow to our perception of the movement that put disability rights on the national stage. But grassroots disability activists regarded economic security and social welfare as part and parcel of their civil rights. This lead the National Federation of the Blind - the NFB - founded in 1940, to fight for full implementation of Aid to the Blind – resulting in the first federal aid program for disabled adults. The NFB also lobbied to raise the amounts people received under Aid to the Blind and heighten the privacy they enjoyed. In the 1960s, NFB leader Jacobus tenBroek advocated welfare rights for all Americans – disabled and nondisabled.

While far-reaching, the Americans with Disabilities Act - the ADA – failed to encompass rights to economic security or medical care. Part of the slack in this area is taken up by other policies, such as Supplemental Security Insurance or SSI, Social Security Disability Insurance or SSDI, and Medicaid. But none of these programs is premised on the idea of disability rights – and all are currently targeted for cuts by the White House and its congressional allies.

The changes ADA stands for in popular discourse occlude the often-bitter struggle that preceded it. And post-ADA shifts in areas such as transportation make it seem as if progress just happened naturally. But ADAPT, the group that led the protest outside McConnell’s office, got its start back in the 1980s demanding that Congress include in the ADA a provision requiring federally funded transportation systems to be accessible.

When we remember the ADA, Americans may be tempted to pat ourselves on the back. But we can’t afford to congratulate ourselves too soon. With the fate of health care policy and the federal budget still uncertain, it’s important to remember the real agenda of that movement. Disability civil rights require all the protections in the ADA, plus well-funded SSI and SSDI programs, Medicaid benefits – and much more.

Felicia Kornbluh is an Associate Professor of History and of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Vermont. She served for six years as Director of the GSWS Program at UVM and as a Commissioner on the Vermont Commission on Women and President of United Academics, the UVM faculty union (AFT/AAUP). She has worked for congressional committees and think tanks in Washington, D.C. Kornbluh holds a B.A. from Harvard-Radcliffe and a Ph.D. from Princeton University. Her books include The Battle for Welfare Rights (2007) and Ensuring Poverty: Welfare Reform in Feminist Perspective (forthcoming, 2018). Her articles have appeared in a wide array of academic and non-academic journals. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.
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