On July 20th 2015 three Special Olympics Maryland (SOMD) athletes were invited with 9 other athletes from Special Olympics Virginia and Special Olympics District of Columbia and a contingent from Special Olympics Inc. (SOI) headquarters to the White House to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the signing of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). Pictured from left to right is Adam Hays from Frederick County, Julian English from Howard County and Alisa Ogden from Montgomery County. They met at the Special Olympics headquarters in Washington D.C. to join others for the bus ride over to the White House. After some introductions the group was bussed off to the White House in time to arrive at the appointed time of 3:00pm.
The reception was held in the East Wing and was quite an elegant affair. The White House band played classical music as representatives from many disability advocacy groups mingled and enjoyed some lite far. The speech was slated for 5:00pm so there was time to get some business down before the President arrived, after all this is Washington D.C.
The anticipation was building as the clock moved closer to the appointed time and the room started to fill in anticipation. Photos were being taken on this historic day and social media was being updated. With the help of a White House intern Julian English was able to get himself a front row seat. After the speech was over he was able to shake hands with both the President and Vice-President from this vantage point.
Haben Girma, who immigrated to the United States with her family, introduced the President. Ms. Girma is a graduate of Harvard Law School and is blind and deaf. She talked about her experience and the opportunities that America afforded her and her brother who is also blind and deaf. It was a powerful story of overcoming odds and determination. This set the stage for the President to arrive.
After some applause, the President began
So on a sunny day 25 years ago — I don’t know if it was as hot as it is today — (laughter) — President George H.W. Bush stood on the South Lawn and declared a new American Independence Day. “With today’s signing of the landmark Americans [with] Disabilities Act,” he said, “every man, woman and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, freedom and independence.”
Speaking of an era of equality, freedom and independence SOMD athlete Alisa Ogden had prepared a sheet in anticipation for this day and it listed 25 things that the ADA has allowed me to do or could allow me to do. Among the opportunities the ADA has or could provide for Alisa (and other persons with intellectual disabilities included the right to work, get an education, live on her own and get better medical carePresident Obama continued
“Thanks to the ADA, the places that comprise our shared American life — schools, workplaces, movie theaters, courthouses, buses, baseball stadiums, national parks — they truly belong to everyone. Millions of Americans with disabilities have had the chance to develop their talents and make their unique contributions to the world.”
Over 25 years the ADA has helped athletes like Adam Hays whether he is aware of it or not. But make no mistake Adam is aware of it. He has an associate’s degree from Frederick Community College in Visual Communications, earned his drivers license and participates fully in his community never giving it a second thought. But as President Obama described that before the ADA that wasn’t always the case.
“It wasn’t just physical obstacles. It was also constraining how people thought about what they should or should not do. And that’s why this is personal. That’s why it’s so important for us to remember what this law means. That’s what today is all about. We’ve got to tear down barriers externally, but we also have to tear down barriers internally. That’s our responsibility as Americans and it’s our responsibility as fellow human beings.
Julian English is only 11 years old so he has known no other life other than the one post ADA but he does understand the struggle that occurred before the passing of this act. Julian will be attending school in Washington D.C. this fall and that choice was one that he would not have had before the ADA. He might not even have gone to school.
While there is still work to be done it was good to reflect and celebrate the ADA and how far we have come because as the President said in his speech “this is not just about American rights; it’s about human rights, and that’s something our nation has to stand for.”
For a full transcript and video of the speech please go to http://www.c-span.org/video/?327205-3/president-obama-remarks-25th-anniversary-americans-disability-act