“When I was growing up, I never expected to be able to go to a movie theater and have a place where I could sit in my wheelchair, or where a bathroom would be accessible,” says Judith Heumann.

Heumann, now special adviser for international disability rights at the U.S. State Department, vividly recalls a youth filled with barriers that restricted her daily activities. Left unable to walk by childhood polio, Heumann was among the early activists who advocated for national legislation to ensure people with disabilities have equal access to public buildings and to education and employment.

Judith Heumann (left) presented a poster commemorating the 25th anniversary of the ADA to the Ho Chi Minh Independent Living group at Vietnam’s Disabilities Research and Capacity Development Center. (State Dept./Allison Aslan)

To appreciate the challenges she faced, imagine if you couldn’t easily cross a street, board a bus, or enter a classroom or store. Just a few decades ago, that was a reality for disabled individuals in the United States.

In 1990, passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) began to change that reality for millions of Americans.

Leaving no one behind

Because of the ADA, more and more citizens with disabilities are pursuing careers, working alongside able-bodied peers in offices and businesses across the country.

At a July 20 White House ceremony marking the ADA’s 25th anniversary, President Obama paid tribute to the law that ensures that Americans with disabilities can be full participants in the life of their communities and their nation.

“Thanks to the ADA, the places that comprise our shared American life — schools, workplaces, movie theaters, courthouses, buses, baseball stadiums, national parks — they truly belong to everyone,” Obama said. “Millions of Americans with disabilities have had the chance to develop their talents and make their unique contributions to the world. And thanks to them, America is stronger and more vibrant; it is a better country because of the ADA. That’s what this law has achieved.”

Among the most passionate supporters of ADA-mandated access is Secretary of State John Kerry, who cites the ADA’s benefits not only for disabled professionals, but also for the communities they live in.

By making the United States more accessible to all citizens, the ADA has “raised the expectations of people with disabilities about what they can hope to achieve at work and in life,” says Kerry. The law inspires the world “to view disability issues through the lens of equality and opportunity.”

An inclusive society, he adds, is a stronger society, because it draws on the talents and contributions of everyone.

Also, “the way we treat people of all backgrounds demonstrates our values and defines who we are,” Kerry says. The ADA signals “our determination to make sure that we leave no one behind — anywhere.”

Positive change

In the 25 years since the ADA became law, U.S. construction standards have changed to require new public buildings to be accessible to everyone, and older buildings have been retrofitted with ramps and other design features to ensure access.

From hiring to providing physical accommodations for employees with disabilities, American workplaces have changed, thanks to the ADA. And many businesses and corporations are making efforts to hire more disabled people.

“The ADA laid the track for a lot of the programs that we have in the United States,” says Kenan Aden, vice president of the placement agency MVLE, which specializes in finding jobs for persons with disabilities.

Kristin Fleschner, 33, belongs to the generation that has grown up enjoying the access made possible by the ADA. She began to lose her sight in 2008 and became an advocate for disability rights.

After applying to several law schools, Fleschner chose Harvard University because the school actively recruited her and accommodated her needs — from special technology to her constant companion, guide dog Zoe. While at Harvard, she made the video “Blind Ambition,” which documents what it is to be blind.

Kristin Fleschner with her guide dog Zoe (Courtesy of Kristin Fleschner)

Legislation and compliance enforcement are essential to ensuring disabled people’s full participation in social, economic and political life.

Increasingly, so is technology.

Accessible tech

The ADA has been refined, expanded and augmented over the years, and one such refinement is a 2010 law requiring that Internet-based communication technology be accessible to people with disabilities. President Obama praised the new law, declaring that “Americans with disabilities are … entitled to not only full participation in our society, but also full opportunity.”

The i-Limb is a prosthetic hand with independently moving parts that flex and bend like a real hand. (© AP Images)

Technology, such as software that turns text into speech, helped Fleschner earn her law degree and assists in her current job at the State Department. IPhones are made to be accessible: VoiceOver and Speak Screen features help the visually impaired, as does Siri, the “intelligent assistant” that gives directions out loud and responds to verbal commands. Vibrating alerts help those with impaired hearing. The multitouch screen is adaptable to specific physical needs.

Apps provide still more tools. The Be My Eyes Network combines technology with volunteerism. It enables a blind person to phone a volunteer for help, say, to read the expiration date on a milk carton. The blind person simply scans the text with an iPhone and a sighted volunteer reads it. BlindSquare is a GPS app that gives audio walking instructions in public spaces.

And high tech is also transforming prosthetics and other tools. Robotic arms and stair-climbing wheelchairs can make life easier for thousands.

Judith Heumann emphasizes that disabled persons must be seen as normal people. “As we take the trains and buses and eat in restaurants, and go to school and are working in the same work sites, people are beginning to have more exposure” to people with disabilities. This “breaking bread together” helps normalize interactions between the disabled and nondisabled. “Things have so dramatically changed,” Heumann says, “but there is so much more to do.”

See how the ADA makes life easier for disabled people in “Tanveer: A day in the life of an international disabled student.”