Diversity & Inclusion
August 13, 2015

Celebrating the Americans with Disabilities Act at 25

Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 opened many eyes (and doors), but work remains to be done.

Growing up blind before the passage of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Kathy Martinez attended public school well before doing so became the norm for many children with a disability. She says her parents expected her to focus on school just as much as her five siblings did — at a time when many blind and visually impaired kids were considered “less capable.” After high school, an employment case worker helped Kathy find a job as a lock factory punch press operator.

“That was it,” she says. “The case worker considered my placement a success, closed my file, and just didn’t consider that I would want to go to college.”

Executive Director of the U.S. Business Leadership Network Jill Houghton at the Disability Rights Museum on Wheels.
Executive Director of the U.S. Business Leadership Network Jill Houghton at the Disability Rights Museum on Wheels.

Today Kathy is a Wells Fargo Diverse Segments marketing manager. (That’s her in the center of the photo above — in sunglasses — with other disability rights advocates at the launch of the Disability Rights Museum on Wheels in Charlotte, North Carolina, earlier this year.)

After leaving the lock factory, she earned a college degree and worked as an advocate for people with disabilities. She says, “With the passage of the ADA in 1990, many of the things now taken for granted by some — like integrated classrooms that include students with and without disabilities, access to public transportation, and accessible telecommunications and technology — became a reality.”

Andy Imparato, executive director of the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, says, “The ADA is kind of like our Brown v. Board of Education, which opened the door to racial equality in public schools. Over time, because of the ADA, we’ve seen a dramatic improvement in accessibility in many facets of public life.”

To celebrate 25 years since the passage of the act, Wells Fargo is a presenting sponsor of the U.S. Business Leadership Network’s Disability Rights Museum on Wheels, which documents the history of disability rights in the U.S. The museum is open to the public and traveling to more than a dozen cities, supported in large part by Wells Fargo volunteers.

“The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act was facilitated by an unprecedented grassroots movement,” says Jill Houghton, executive director of the U.S. Business Leadership Network, a nonprofit helping businesses drive performance through disability inclusion in the workplace, supply chain, and marketplace. “We’re proud to share the history of that movement through this museum and pay tribute to those who led the way for disability civil rights and technological innovation.”

The image of the disability flag on display in the museum on wheels
The Disability Rights Museum on Wheels features key milestones in the American disability rights movement.

Kathy says, “The ADA changed everything, particularly with regard to physical accessibility. Now, we have curb cuts, accessible public transportation, and ATMs for the blind. Most important, kids with disabilities today grow up and expect to work and lead integrated lives.”

Along with No Barriers USA, Wells Fargo has also produced a series of videos featuring leaders in the disability community. No Barriers USA is a nonprofit working to empower people of all abilities through transformative experiences. In the videos, Andy and others reflect on the changes brought about by the ADA and consider the challenges that remain for people with disabilities.

“We’ve come a long way, but there’s still work to be done,” says Kathy.

Americans with disabilities are two times more likely to live below the poverty line than those without special needs, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The U.S. Department of Labor’s most recent disability statistics show that one-third of people with disabilities are part of the labor force, compared with more than two-thirds of people without disabilities.

Kathy says, “To be true allies to our customers, communities, and team members, we need to focus on economic empowerment and changing public perceptions of disabilities to remove the stigma and include people with disabilities in all aspects of life.”