Boomers vs. the Disabled

Americans will celebrate the 20th anniversary of a civil rights moon shot this year. President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in July 1990, before thousands of exhausted and jubilant activists. The legislation made access to public spaces and the workforce a civil right, ensuring that–while sidelong glances, hushed comments, and other insidious sorts of discrimination couldn’t be legislated away–the physical and economic manifestations of intolerance would be quantified and combated.

An anniversary like this is understandably dominated by talk about how far a movement has come rather than what challenges lurk in the future. But New Mobility (Sept. 2009) is looking forward, and sees players and alliances changing radically in the face of a historical accident: “The coming-of-age of the first post-ADA generation just happens to coincide with the retirement of the first wave of baby boomers. Suddenly, it isn’t just a small group of activists who are concerned with how to manage disabilities in ways that maximize their independence.”

A new and influential power coalition with the boomers is all but inevitable, but inside the disability rights community there is fear of a new era of disempowerment in which the demands of the aging boomers, which many Americans can relate to, will cast a shadow over the less familiar needs of an already underrepresented community. Or, worse yet, fear that if the economy continues to flounder, the needs of those with disabilities will fall off the public agenda altogether.

“Unless we advocate effectively for our own interests,” writes New Mobility, “we may find our society increasingly asking a question we all dread: Are our rights and integration worth the financial cost?”

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