ADA 30: Celebrating the Americans with Disabilities Act

GCDD Legislative Advocacy Director Charlie Miller interviewed Mark Johnson, renowned disability advocate and former director of advocacy at the Shepherd Center, on what it was like to advocate for the Americans with Disabilities Act, what the future holds and his advice for young advocates.

Charlie Miller: What was your biggest “I can’t believe I lived without this” moment once the ADA got passed?

Mark Johnson: The biggest moment. Well like I said I got injured in 1971 and so I became the Mayor with the Architecture in ’68 and then after ’71 I got involved in Section 504 of the Rehab Act in the late ‘70s, but none of them addressed or were as broad as the ADA. So back in those days when – I drive a modified or accessible van and so back in those days you didn’t have really building codes that addressed access so there were a lot of physical barriers. You weren’t able to use public transit. There were just a lot of issues. You weren’t able to go down to Tybee Island and get on Beach Manning. You weren’t able to access power beach chairs in Orange Beach, Alabama, or Destin. You weren’t able to do all those things so you kind of did what you could do. So I think the “aha” moment or whatever was when I was sitting on the White House lawn on July 26, 1990 with 3,000 other people in very hot weather (obviously in July in DC).

Charlie Miller: Yeah.

Mark Johnson: Was that you finally kind of got acknowledged as a person, you know? Not somebody to be treated differently or be discriminated against. So it was like after all those years where people with disabilities were separated and isolated and discriminated against it was like okay change takes time but now we have a new tool in the toolkit and that’s the ADA. So that was one thing was just seeing that many people with that much history and understanding that a new narrative had started.

Charlie Miller: I think it’s really important for us to highlight that (like you were saying) ADA is there but there are other laws and other things like the Olmstead Decision that has really impacted our community.

Mark Johnson: And think about that. That didn’t come along till like nine years after ADA.

Well I once said this theory, and I think I’ve told it to you before - if common sense worked, we wouldn’t need laws. So unfortunately we had to pass the law, but sometimes they don’t go far enough. People who study history realized that the law itself should have been enough in 1990, but we had to go and sue the state of Georgia to enforce the law nine years later, you know? And if you look at the enforcement or implementation of Olmstead in placed like Georgia, the home of Olmstead, we still have a long way to go. So here we are 30 years after the law, 30 years after Spring Court decision, and there is still a waiting list. What’s wrong with this picture?

Charlie Miller: Well I think that brings me to my second question. You’ve seen ADA, you’ve seen Olmstead, you’ve seen really follow forward Rehab Act, really instrumental laws and regulations to help people with disabilities. But thinking in the future, like in the next 30 years – and I was listening to one of Kate Gainers’ interviews and she was saying that she does not envy the younger generation because she sees so many new barriers coming up. It may not be a physical barrier, but it may be some new barrier. In your own knowledge, what do you think will be your – not “your” but, the next big barrier for the disability community?

Mark Johnson: You still have obviously employment. Underemployment. That one hadn’t gone away and it really hadn’t changed much since ADA passed. You still have – we still don’t have equal access to healthcare. But look what’s happened with the pandemic. We still have a variety of systemic issues whether race injustices or whatever that needs to be addressed. So you can look even within the disability community and say “okay who tends to be forced into facilities and who tends to be not employed and who tends to have lack of housing” and you break that demographic even more. So I think one is we just have a kind of reckoning that we had resisted being with that we have to deal with.

And then we have the same old issues. Just because we say ADA required accessible busses in public systems then you had to work with over the road coaches, and then you had to work with companies that have travel companies, now you go “okay can I go out to the local RV dealership and find an accessible RV?” When I rent a car or rent a van from the rental company, I have to go to a niche or specialty van company and pay a bunch more than I would have to pay if I would just rent it as a van from a rental company. If you look at Uber or Lyft or whatever, we don’t have the same level of access to those transportation modes as other people. I could go on. You asked me for one or two or three and I gave you eight or ten real quick.

Charlie Miller: I totally agree with that. And I think you’re right, we’ve started a really good opportunity, we have really good laws behind us, now we’ve just got to make sure – it’s almost like not really getting the politician involved this time but getting the community to be involved, to be – they’re wanting to make it as accessible as possible because they see the value in making stuff accessible.

Mark Johnson: Well you’ve always been good with people. You know. It’s easy for you to establish relationships with people. You’re not one to sit inside and not come in contact with people. So when it’s all said and done the answer is relationships. You surprised your family, you surprised your family’s friends. They’re probably – I would think they’re probably looking at access differently now that you’re a young man than they did when that kid who uses a wheelchair, “we’ll get him in,” versus now they’re going “can he roll in?” Can he use my bathroom? They plan an event and they go you know in the past when you were a kid, they did what they need, but now they’re going maybe there’s more than just doing that. Maybe we don’t need to just drag him here, carry him there, but maybe we actually need to accommodate his disability. So that all changes with relationships and attitudes. Then when you get an attitude change you get policy change.

Charlie Miller: So our final question – and it’s an open ended question. You’re welcome to spend as long as you want. Imagine you’re talking to a young advocate named Charlie. What is one piece of advice you would want to leave to that next generation to give them understanding of what you’re going to have to do and then what you see as the next big push?

Mark Johnson: At the end of last year, some of us were having a talk about what 2020 might look like, what are the opportunities for 2020, and of course we were talking about more around this November and what would different outcomes look like, how would people respond based on who gets elected - not just as President but down-ticket. We said it’s going to be one of those transformative years, but that was before we even had the pandemic or before we even had some of the recent protests and that was before Gen Z recognized that they’re 10% potentially of the voting population. I’m a Baby Boomer, then you’ve got your Millennials and you’ve got your Gen X, but Gen Z has woken up now and said, “Hey we potentially control 10% of voters.” So it is an opportunity I think you alluded to earlier, we’re learning things and we’re not going back.

So I think it's you know what's it like that old Nike thing "Just do it." And then it's like, just do it now, but understand that your personal experience makes you an expert. Nobody's going to teach you that. But you don't have to learn that first. Just know that your personal experience makes you an expert, so just go out and be an expert.