Rutherford Platt: A landmark in the evolution of ‘humane urbanism’

  • Carmen Rosado, right, an advocate at the Stavros Center for Independent Living in Amherst, boards a PVTA paratransit van after her work day, Oct. 24, 2018. Khionna Steele, center, is the driver for the contractor that operates the ADA paratransit service, National Express. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Published: 12/4/2018 10:43:01 AM
A landmark in the evolution of ‘humane urbanism’

On July 26, 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), stating that it “represents the full flowering of our democratic principles, and it gives me great pleasure to sign it into law today.” Incredibly, in light of today’s fractured Congress, the ADA was adopted by the U.S. Senate by a vote of 76-8 and by unanimous voice vote in the House of Representatives — and it was an unfunded federal mandate, no less!

The ADA was a landmark in the evolution of what I call “humane urbanism,” following decades of neighborhood devastation due to urban renewal and highway construction. Shrewdly, the act’s supporters framed it as a civil rights law that enlarged federal protection beyond race, religion, national origin and gender to include persons afflicted by “a physical or mental impairment.” ADA prohibits disability-based discrimination (whether intentional or not) which impairs access to employment, housing, public accommodations, education, transportation, recreation, health care, voting and other public functions. The act applies to new buildings as well as existing facilities that are substantially modified, with the costs allocated to the building owner.

Since its adoption, ADA has gradually transformed America’s cities and towns and improved the lives of countless individuals who formerly were physically shut out of the mainstream of American society. Government buildings, hotels, offices, stores, theaters, libraries, churches, museums, parks, hospitals and public transportation facilities are now generally accessible to those with physical impairments.

ADA has not only assisted people with disabilities, but has made our shared spaces and buildings more amenable for everyone. Sidewalk curb cuts benefit not only those in wheel chairs but also parents pushing strollers, cyclists, and people pulling suitcases. Public buses “kneel,” children love opening doors with push buttons, rest rooms include spacious cubicles, and water fountains are within easy reach of kids.

ADA recalls a golden age of bipartisanship which also yielded the major environmental reforms of the 1970s and 1980s and other critical federal legislation.

Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Ted Kennedy (each with personal or family experience with disabilities) were among the 63 Senate co-sponsors of the ADA. And can you imagine a unanimous House vote on anything today?

As President Bush observed, ADA reflected “the full flowering of our democratic principles.” Today’s Republicans in the White House and Congress have sadly deserted those principles.

Rutherford H. Platt

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