Next week—July 26 to be exact—marks 22 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. Like other pieces of civil rights legislation, this landmark law works to ensure a more inclusive America. Its passage paved the way for millions of Americans to more fully participate in all aspects of community life.
I am one of those millions of people. I was born blind. My sister Peggy was also born blind. We were the middle of six children, and as of yet there is no diagnosis for our blindness.
When Peggy and I were growing up, there was no ADA, and we didn’t know much about the emerging disability rights movement. We were too busy just being kids. But, fortunately, we had parents who understood the importance of inclusion and fought for our rights even before the law backed them up. To start, they advocated for me, and later Peggy, to attend our local public school. This allowed us to be part of, rather than separate from, our community. My parents couldn’t wait for change, so they made it happen.
Today, the ADA enshrines in law what my parents—and many others—already knew: the ideal of equal opportunity holds no water unless it truly includes all people, including people with disabilities.
That said, more than two decades after the ADA was passed, much work remains to be done. And that’s why I do what I do every day. I have the honor of leading DOL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), which works to influence national policy and promote effective workplace practices that ensure today’s workforce is inclusive of all people.
While ODEP does not enforce the ADA, the law underpins all of our work. We assist employers and individuals in understanding their rights and responsibilities through policy development, education and guidance. I sometimes say that we at ODEP are impatient. We want change. We want action. We want inclusion. Just like my parents when I was young, we can’t wait.
We can’t wait for more employers to foster a work environment that is flexible and open to the talents of all qualified individuals. We can’t wait for more businesses to integrate people with disabilities into leadership positions. We can’t wait for a more inclusive America, one where every individual has the opportunity to fully participate in and contribute to our great nation.
Kathy Martinez is the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy.