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August 06, 2020

Dr. Angélica Guevara: Happy Birthday ADA

On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed a monumental piece of legislation into law: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). We owe a massive debt to all of the disability rights activists and allies who organized and participated in protests and placed pressure on officials for a more just society. People with disabilities would no longer be ignored and would be part of the social narrative, and have access to employment, public services, and places of public accommodations. To demonstrate how people with disabilities are marginalized by architectural design, adults and children with mobility disabilities dragged their bodies up the steps of Congress.

I am a neurodivergent Latina whose race, class, gender, and disability intersect in daily life. Living on $7,000 a year, my parents, older brother, and I lived in the Normont Terrace Housing Projects in Los Angeles. My parents had only an elementary-level education and were financially and emotionally unable to assist me or understand my desire for an education. Lacking educational role models, my older brother dropped out of high school. Fortunately for me, thanks to the intervention and mentorship of my high school teacher, Ms. Monson, I overcame my circumstances, which included my parents’ domestic violence and alcohol addiction. I moved in with her, and, with her help, I was the first in my immediate family to graduate high school.

I was accepted to college at UCLA. Once there, I really struggled. I attributed my struggles to the poor education I had received in high school. I got straight As mainly for showing up. I completed reading my first book as a junior. You can understand the shock I felt when I  learned that I had reading and writing disabilities. Initially, I rejected the diagnosis because I was raised to believe that disability was a punishment from God and that disabled people were broken. However, when the doctor explained that, going forward, as an accommodation my books would be converted to audio and that a program would read my emails, I could not stop the tears from rolling down my face because I no longer had to read my assignments two or three times to understand them. After graduating from UCLA, I received a scholarship to attend UC Berkeley Law. Years later, I returned to complete a Ph.D. program in education.

Although my books were also scanned and read by an application, the scanning typically was not completed until two weeks into the law school semester, and up to five weeks into the Ph.D. program. Nevertheless, I was held to the same grading standards as my peers. Additionally, having a non-apparent disability provoked comments such as, “How disabled are you if you got this far?” Others assumed that because of my disability, I could not perform even though I had proven otherwise. Also, I found it hard to see myself in my professors, given the faculty’s lack of diversity. In the end, I do not believe my education was equal to that of my non-disabled classmates. When I transitioned to the workplace, I experienced negative consequences after disclosing my disability and asking for accommodations.

While I believe that the ADA was paramount to my academic success, more needs to be done. The ADA is the floor and not the ceiling. I believe that the stigma associated with having a disability often prevents disabled persons from being given the opportunity to demonstrate that they can do the job. Statistics show that people with disabilities who are employed make 63 cents on the dollar relative to people without disabilities. Those of us with disabilities who have managed to obtain a graduate degree and incur debt have to pay this debt while still earning significantly less than the average graduate. For now, we humbly celebrate the ADA, as the starting point towards justice for people with disabilities.

Dr. Angélica Guevara

William H. Hastie Fellow, Institute for Legal Studies Law and Society Graduate Fellow, University of Wisconsin Law School