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SSD employee Nancy Martin offers unique perspective on the Americans with Disabilities Act 20 years after its passing

“This is our Declaration of Independence Day.”

Those are the words that Nancy Martin, administrator for the Special School District Parent Education and Diversity Awareness Program, used 20 years ago to describe her feelings about the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

As one of hundreds to witness the historic signing of the ADA in person on the White House lawn, Martin recalls a feeling of relief, joy and celebration.

“It was very emotional,” Martin said. “It’s an amazing part of our history, and to be there to witness it was truly an experience. There was much joy, laughter and tears on the White House lawn that day.”

July 26 marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the ADA, which protects people with disabilities from being discriminated against in the areas of employment, access to public facilities, transportation and communication. As a local activist who was part of the grassroots effort to support the historic legislation, Martin was invited to witness the signing of the bill into law by President George H. W. Bush.

“I compare it to the fight of African-Americans living in the South during the Civil Rights movement,” Martin said. “But for people with disabilities, the law to guarantee our civil rights didn’t come until 1990.”

As a person with a physical disability, Martin has first-hand knowledge and awareness of the personal, social and environmental issues encountered by the disabled community. Martin, who was born with cerebral palsy, is one of nearly 50 million people living in the United States today with some type of long-lasting condition or disability. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people with disabilities make up 19.3 percent of the population nationwide – or roughly one out of five people.

In 1990, Martin was working as director of independent living specialists for Paraquad, a local not-for-profit with a mission to empower people with disabilities to increase their independence. Realizing the importance of her trip to Washington D.C., Martin invited a representative from Paraquad’s Youth and Family Program to join her. Polly Tallarico, who was 16 at the time, said she was delighted to make the trip with Martin.

“It was so much of an experience,” said Tallarico, who has cerebral palsy. “To me, it meant everyone would be treated the same. Because I was only 16, I don't think I was aware how important this legislation was at the time.”

Martin had a different perspective. Born in 1957, times were very different for her. She recalls overcoming hurdles to receive an education and learn to drive. She said the road has not always been easy.

“When I turned 16, I dutifully went out and applied for jobs, but no one would hire me,” she said. But Martin said she never really saw herself as an activist. It wasn’t until she entered college that she realized something needed to be done.

She began by attending town hall meetings led by the late Justin Dart, an international disability rights advocate who crafted and spearheaded the passage of the ADA. During the meetings, Martin would give personal testimony regarding her experiences and why she and other citizens with disabilities needed a law to protect their civil rights. During the ’80s, Martin volunteered her weekends and evenings at St. Louis city and county college campuses and public events. She collected hundreds of signatures in support of the ADA.

Martin said the passage of the ADA was truly a bi-partisan effort.

“Republicans and Democrats worked together,” she said. “It didn’t matter what your political party affiliation was. Disabilities don’t recognize you as Republican or Democrat. Disabilities don’t discriminate. They affect everyone.”

Martin, who uses a motorized scooter to help with her mobility, said she has seen many changes take place over the past 20 years. One local example is MetroLink. Since it was built after the passage of the ADA, it meets accessibility standards for people with disabilities.

A personal example for Martin occurred just this past October when she was able to travel to Las Vegas for her niece’s wedding. Martin said prior to the enactment of the ADA, the trip may have been more difficult because she would not have known whether the airports, hotels, restaurants and other public facilities would have been accessible to her.

She said a true testimony was when she was in Las Vegas and was waiting for a taxi to take her to the airport for her return trip to St. Louis. She said within minutes a wheelchair-accessible van pulled up, the door opened and the lift was lowered. She entered the van, held onto the overhead handle and said, “ADA all the way!”

“It’s just so freeing to be able to do that with no question,” Martin said. “That never would have happened 20 years ago.”

Tallarico, who uses a wheelchair, said the ADA has made it possible for her to maintain her independence. She serves as a community advocate for Paraquad and owns her own home. As a community advocate she visits local businesses and facilities to see if they are meeting ADA standards.

Tallarico said the ADA has had a tremendous impact on her life.

“It has impacted my life greatly because it allows me to be employed, get the help I need to live independently in my own home, and have access to my local community,” she said.

Martin said one of the most dramatic changes that has taken place over the past 20 years is something completely intangible.

“People’s mindsets have changed,” she said. “You can take a jackhammer to put in curb cuts, but you can’t take a jackhammer to people’s opinions and mindsets. That’s where the true power of the ADA has come into play. It’s the general attitude change that has been remarkable.”

But both Tallarico and Martin say there is still more work to be done in the area of rights for people with disabilities. And just as Martin was a part of the disability rights movement 20 years ago, she will again be a part of shaping the future of the ADA.

Martin will again be traveling to Washington D.C. next month to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the ADA. She has been selected as a delegate by the National Council on Disability to participate in the National Summit on Disability Policy. Martin is the only delegate from the state of Missouri invited to take part in the summit.

“It’s truly an honor,” Martin said. “To live through the past 20 years and see the changes that have occurred is pretty phenomenal. To be a part of what the next 20 years will look like is exciting.”
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Special School District of St. Louis County (SSD) is a leader in providing special education services to students with disabilities and also provides a wide range of career and technical education programs.
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