Celebrating the ADA at 30—and What Really Changes Hearts – ​Joni Eareckson Tada

Thirty years ago, when I was a member of the National Council on Disability, I was thrilled to see the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). For too long, Americans with disabilities had been dealing with significant barriers to jobs, public transportation, and public accommodations. The year before, our Council had worked hard on the first draft of the ADA, and after collaborating with other disability groups, it had passed in Congress.

On a breezy July afternoon in 1990, we gathered with other national advocates on the White House lawn to watch President George H. W. Bush sign the ADA into law. I sat in my wheelchair, dreaming of all the possibilities for people like me.

After the ceremony, our Council hosted a reception during which our director, Paul Hearn, wheeled to the front to propose a toast. Paul, a seasoned advocate, had brittle bone disease and used a three-wheeled scooter. When he turned to face our group, the room fell quiet. I will never forget his words. He fingered his drink for a moment, then said:

This is a wonderful day. This landmark civil-rights legislation will open a great door of access to all Americans with disabilities. Discriminatory employment policies will soon be a thing of the past—it will mean qualified people with disabilities will enjoy greater access to jobs. This law will also set new standards for constructing buildings, and it will provide greater access to public accommodations—wheelchair users will no longer have to be carried up the steps of a restaurant. And one day, buses across America will be outfitted with mechanical lifts—there’ll be no barriers to public transportation.

Paul then took a deep breath and proceeded:

The Americans with Disabilities Act will do this. But it will not change the heart of the employer. This law will not change the heart of the maître de in the restaurant. It will not change the hearts of architects or people in the building industry. And this law will not change the heart of the bus driver.

He paused one more time, lifted his glass, and said, “Here’s to changed hearts.” 

Tears overflowed my eyes as I realized, That’s what God does. Christians have the message that will change peoples’ hearts. The government cannot do it; neither can federal laws. Only Jesus Christ can transform hearts and attitudes. It was a transforming moment for me, a follower of Jesus who’d been called to serve him in the disability community. 

Continued Need for Change

The ADA and its tenets could only become ingrained in American culture through the process of complaint-and-compliance. This mechanistic process forces the transformation of social institutions, but it doesn’t necessarily improve attitudes or uproot prejudice or discrimination. Education may raise disability awareness, but even that only goes so far. It doesn’t make a disadvantaged class of persons valued or even celebrated. 

Christians have the message that will change peoples’ hearts. The government can’t do it; neither can federal laws. Only Jesus Christ can transform hearts and attitudes.

Even so, we can be thankful that over the last 30 years, many ADA mandates have been accomplished. We’ve come a long way since the days when Paul Hearn and I had to wheel down alleys and into the back doors of restaurants. Today I can roll my wheelchair into a building with ease. My friend who’s blind can walk into a museum with her service dog. Children with autism have access to special-education programs. There is immense cause for celebration.

Yet much remains to be done. Regulations and enforcements provide the impetus for change, but it’s only the gospel of Christ that transforms the character of individuals and nations. They say that access is having a ramp to the table . . . mainstreaming is having a seat at the table . . . inclusion is having a voice at the table. But true embrace is being heard at the table. We will only hear and embrace people with disabilities when character is transformed, on a personal and a national level. 

Including the character of the church.

Ephesians 2:14 declares, “For [Christ] himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” I envision a society—and a church—in which all people with disabilities are truly celebrated. This doesn’t happen when children and adults with disabilities are isolated from the full life of a congregation, separated in a segregated “department.” It happens when families with special needs are happily embraced.

Higher Law Than the ADA

It’s why I encourage you to join Joni and Friends this year in celebrating the 30th anniversary of the ADA by asking God to work in the heart of your church. And perhaps your heart, too. How can you demonstrate a changed heart toward people with disabilities?

It’s more than not taking that empty accessible parking spot when you don’t have a special placard. It’s more than removing hurtful words from your vocabulary. 

How can you demonstrate a changed heart toward people with disabilities?

It means making friendships with people who have disabilities. As Jesus says in Luke 14:12–13, “When you host a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or brothers or relatives or rich neighbors . . . invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Jesus is telling us to pull up the tent pegs in our thinking and reach out to those with whom we don’t normally identify. 

There’s a higher law than the ADA. It’s the law of love, and it’s how the body of Christ will enjoy embracing “the lame and the blind” as image-reflectors of God. The heart of the ADA is all about relationships. It’s about love. And you can’t legislate that.

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