WASHINGTON — Michael Warner’s parents were presented with a choice after their baby boy was diagnosed with spastic cerebral palsy.
They could have him immediately institutionalized — or raise him at home.
“Luckily, they chose the latter,” Warner said.
It was just a few years afterward — on July 26, 1990 — that the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law.
That landmark initiative sought to make it easier for Warner and other disabled Americans to stay out of institutional settings and instead be integrated into the broader community.
Warner grew up in Omaha and still lives in the city. He describes himself as a member of the first generation to come of age under the ADA, which he credited with allowing him a public school education alongside his peers.
“My ability to live my life as independently as possible is directly correlated with the passage of the ADA,” Warner said. “I wouldn’t be able to live my life as effectively as I have without it.”
Advocates have been celebrating the ADA’s 30th anniversary this week with events hailing the progress achieved and highlighting areas where work remains to be done.
Former Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has been a fixture at the commemorations as the chief sponsor behind the legislation. Harkin pushed for the ADA after witnessing the discrimination faced by his deaf brother.
Harkin said he saw how those with disabilities were subjected to demeaning language like “cripple” and “moron” and shut out of society.
“For a person with a disability, it was a life of segregation and separation from their family and their friends and their community,” Harkin said of the country before 1990. “It was a life of hurtful language that you would hear all the time. And it was a life, even among the most well-meaning of people, it was a life of pity and patronizing attitudes. Life was limiting in so many ways to a person with a disability before the ADA.”
The new law meant commercial buildings with accessible entryways, sidewalks with curb cuts, buses with wheelchair ramps and restrooms that disabled people could use.
More broadly, though, it helped shift the American mindset to regard inclusion and accommodation as the norm, rather than the exception.
“We’ve come a long way. We’ve made a lot of good changes in society,” the 80-year-old Harkin said. “A lot of attitudes have changed about what people with disabilities are capable of doing.”
Barriers still remain for the disabled, and one of the biggest challenges is economic self-sufficiency. Harkin noted that unemployment numbers among disabled people have improved little over the past 30 years.
“That’s a blot on our national character,” Harkin said. “We’ve got to do a better job on that.”
Warner, for example, says he has never held a full-time job but would like to. He graduated from Northwest High School in Omaha in 2005 and recently received an associate degree from Metropolitan Community College. Once the coronavirus pandemic has faded, he hopes to go back to school for a bachelor’s degree and has talked about working as a disability consultant to companies alongside his work as an advocate and activist.
But he said some employers are hesitant to hire people with disabilities.
“They don’t know how they would handle disabled employees, especially if we’re talking about a physical limitation that is somewhat severe. And that is an issue,” Warner said. “We need to get past this stigma of not understanding or not knowing how to best utilize employees that might have a disability.”
Another Omahan, Rick Rodgers, was injured in a 2001 work accident in which he was thrown off the back of a tractor. The resulting surgeries left him with numerous screws and a steel rod in his body.
“I’m a cross between Frankenstein and an erector set,” he joked.
Rodgers needs a wheelchair much of the time because of the nerve damage and pain, but he said many Omaha buildings remain difficult to get into even today, and the ramps on city buses don’t always work.
Finding a job is also an issue. Rodgers went back to college and got certified to work on computers, but he says potential employers don’t want to be liable for his medical issues.
“I can’t get any companies to hire me, mainly because of my health,” he said. “That needs to be addressed.”
Warner noted that many disabled individuals also worry about taking a full-time job because that can mean losing public benefits such as health insurance or Social Security payments.
“I’m glad for what we do have, as far as being able to be out in the community and gain access to commerce, but I do believe there are further steps that could be taken,” Warner said.
Improving work opportunities for the disabled has been a focus for Harkin since he retired from the Senate in 2015. He has urged companies to overhaul training programs and do whatever else is necessary to increase their hiring of disabled Americans.
Congress could help by passing legislation that would address the issue of disabled individuals losing benefits if they find full-time employment, he said.
Of the various ADA anniversary events Harkin joined this week, he said the most fun was a plane ride Friday with the first armless pilot, Jessica Cox, at the controls.
The two met through her advocacy work on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities treaty, which they both continue to push.
“I’ve been able to see around the world what people with disabilities experience and how they are not protected,” Cox said.
Harkin is a lifelong aviator himself, so they quickly bonded over their love of planes and Cox offered to take him up with her.
Years went by before they were able to make it happen, but Friday they lifted off in a 1946 Ercoup plane from an airport in Frederick, Maryland.
After the brief flight, Cox talked about being in first grade when the ADA went into effect and how she quickly noticed differences, from accessible entryways to restrooms. She even got a slanted desk that allowed her to write with her feet.
Harkin said Cox is an inspiration and that the landing she executed on Friday was among the finest he’d ever seen.
“I was so enthralled by watching her and seeing how good she was,” Harkin said. “She knows how to handle an airplane.”
Our best staff images from July 2020
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.