ELIZABETH, NJ - The civil rights movement for people with disabilities reached a landmark on July 26, 1990 with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. On its 30th anniversary, people with disabilities are celebrating hard-earned victories and are speaking up about the work still to be done and recognizing the historic law intended to prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life.
Gary Rubin became a member of Community Access Unlimited in 1990, then known as the Association for the Advancement of the Mentally Handicapped- Union. Rubin experienced chaotic living arrangements and mistreatment living in state-run institutions in the 1980s, and quickly became involved in the Helping Hands advocacy organization, one of the oldest and strongest advocacy groups for people with disabilities in the state, when he joined CAU and began living in a residential program. He became president of Helping Hands and was a founder of the New American Movement for People with Disabilities (NAMPD).
“Before the ADA, you were no one if you had different abilities,” Rubin said. “I was one of the people who made sure it went through, and afterward we talked to people. You don’t want a law to come out and people to take advantage of it. They need to comply.” Today, Rubin lives on his own, works and remains an engaged disability civil rights activist.
According to Belinda Malave, another CAU member and advocate, the ADA has become frustrating, because the law is not taken seriously by everyone and too often, little is done to ensure compliance and accountability.
“We have work to do - we have a long way to go as far as the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Malave said. She cited difficulties accessing buildings in her wheelchair and discrimination she has experienced in the workplace as a telemarketer. “There are lots of places still not accessible or discriminating 30 years later. There is no reason for any new building not to be accessible because of the ADA.” Malave has been a longtime, vocal and highly active self-advocate and a strong advocate on behalf of people with disabilities at the system level.
Societal attitudes about people with disabilities began changing in the 1960s with the deinstitutionalization movement. As the rights of people with disabilities were slowly recognized and advanced, thousands of state centers housing people with disabilities and people with mental illness, with support from organizations like Community Access Unlimited, were transitioned to become included, participating members and residents in communities. The ADA was modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin – and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, the ADA expanded disability rights beyond federally funded spaces with the intention that people with disabilities could no longer be denied access to jobs, school, transportation, or to public places.
At the signing of the ADA, President Bush gave an impassioned directive, now famously part of the legacy of the ADA: “Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”
CAU is an Elizabeth-based statewide agency supporting people with disabilities and youth at risk to enable them to live fulfilling and independent lives within the community.
Helping Hands, founded at CAU in 1984, and the NAMPD, founded in 2012, continue to advocate for the needs of people with disabilities in the United States and empower them to advocate for themselves.
“We want to talk to the governor on Zoom about job opportunities and what’s happening with this virus,” Rubin said. “With the virus going on things are really changing. And it’s people like us who are affected by it.”
Malave has been communicating with people with disabilities by phone to make sure their needs are met while quarantined, she said. Rubin said he is concerned about COVID-19 policies restricting the independence of people with disabilities.
“The ADA has a way to go and we need to do a little bit better,” Rubin said. “We need to do something so we can prevent just being seen but not heard from...I don’t want to feel like that in the 21st century.”