What the ADA Means to Me

In honor of the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), MIUSA CEO Susan Sygall pays tribute to this historic law's role in her own life, while other disability rights activists from around the world reflect on the ADA's global impact.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) changed my life. It allowed me to feel the respect that I deserve, to feel protected by a non-discrimination policy. The underlying principles of the ADA have served as a blueprint for other strong enforceable disability rights laws throughout the world.

Disability rights activists throughout the world have adapted these principles and used them to create laws and policies that work in their own countries and cultures.

Strong effective laws must have “teeth,” which is to say they must be enforceable and have consequences for those who don’t abide by them. Only then will the laws forge a pathway for every disabled person to access the same opportunities and rights as their nondisabled peers.

For more than 40 years, MIUSA has hosted international exchange programs and trainings with disabled activists and allies from over 135 countries. We asked some of these esteemed leaders to reflect on the ADA and its impact on their work:

Zara Batoyan, member of Parliament in Armenia, President of Disability-Inclusive Development NGO, and 2013 WILD alum:

I learned about the ADA in 2012 when, as a disability rights activist, I participated in the Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability (WILD) program organized by MIUSA. I was particularly impressed by the history of the disability movement in the United States and by the process of the adoption of the ADA. On the one hand, I was doubtful that we could ever achieve a law like this in Armenia, but on the other hand, all of the stories I heard inspired me to dream bigger and to strive for a new level of activism in my country.

After Armenia’s Velvet Revolution in 2018, I was appointed as the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, the first woman with a disability in a government position. It was then that I decided to manage the development of a new disability law which would be based on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and ADA principles. It took some time, but we finally succeeded: this year the Parliament approved the law!

Now, as a member of Parliament, I have a lot to do toward creating equal opportunities in Armenia, and the fight for the ADA and its implementation will continue to inspire me.
Happy anniversary!

Mila Guedes, General Coordinator of the Collective of Women with Disabilities of Sao Paulo, Brazil and partner for MIUSA’s 2021 program Mobilizing Disabled Women Leaders for Inclusive Responses to Gender-Based Violence during the COVID Pandemic:

Since the ADA, the voice of women and girls with disabilities is being heard around the world. The ADA was a watershed in our lives, opening a chapter on empowerment and justice.

Furthermore, many countries have followed the ADA to create their own laws regarding persons with disabilities. The innovative principles of the ADA paved the way for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The guarantee of the rights of persons with disabilities arising from the ADA encourages me to move forward and to strengthen my activism.

Dulamsuren “Duya” Jigjid, 2008 alum of MIUSA’s Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability (WILD) program and Executive Director of the Culture Centre for Deaf in Mongolia:

Although the ADA is an American law, sometimes for me it is like an international human rights document.

In my opinion, the DNA of the ADA lies in the actual implementation of this law. Under the ADA, we have equal opportunities and equal access if we visit any state in the United States or if we work on any project with organizations based in the United States. 

Although the United States has not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, I think they are far ahead of other countries in realizing the rights of persons with disabilities. This is the benefit of the ADA law.

Here’s an example: In 2019 at the World Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI) conference in Paris, France, the largest number of sign language interpreters in attendance were from the United States, 126 in total (Learn more about WASLI 2019).

As a result of the ADA’s requirements on providing interpreters, a large number of interpreters have become trained in the U.S. As a deaf leader, this is a practical embodiment of equality that I like to share as an example of the ADA’s sustainability and enforceability.

Karine Grigoryan, founder and President of the Agate Center and 2006 WILD alumna from Armenia:

When I visited the United States for the first time for the WILD program in 2006, I witnessed universal accessibility everywhere I went, including physical, communication, information and attitude accessibility, which pleasantly surprised me. 

In response to my question about how it was possible to uphold the equal rights, dignity and opportunities of persons with disabilities, I heard the same answer: “We have had the ADA since 1990.” I was so inspired and started to believe that strong laws really can do magic, so since then I was motivated and strived to be one of the disability rights champions in Armenia fighting for the adoption of the disability rights legislation.  I was able to join disability rights organizations in a Coalition for Inclusive Legal Reforms to advocate for a rights-based disability law in Armenia, which was finally adopted by parliament and signed by the president in May, 2021.

Fadi El Halabi, Executive Director & Regional Coordinator of EDAN-Middle East in Lebanon and International Visitor Leadership Program alum:

As documented in the film “Crip Camp,” the birth of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, 1990 was a major turning point for disability rights in the United States. 

Since the ADA, the American disability landscape has changed. Not only did it improve the quality of life for millions of Americans with disabilities, but it also inspired many disability advocates - including me - from all over the world to believe that positive change is possible. Although there is still a long way to go, the journey that started will never stop.

Precious Ncube, Projects and Disability Advocacy Officer at King George VI Centre in Zimbabwe and 2019 WILD alum:

As an employee with a disability holding a managerial post at my place of work, Title 1 of The ADA resonates with my daily experience. The provisions of Title 1 not only empower me and give me awareness of my rights, but they also provide guidance for me when I am involved in the recruitment process where a person with a disability is applying for a job within my organisation. I do my daily administrative and managerial tasks with reasonable accommodations provided; that and with ADA Title 1, places me in a good position to foster equitable hiring practices at my workplace.

One of the most valuable takeaways from my WILD experience was getting a more in-depth understanding of reasonable accommodation, and the realization that the concepts cuts across all aspects of our lives, not just ensuring accessibility, but also opportunities to work and the right to advancement. I am now in the management team helping push determine my organisation’s direction, and with employment equality rights and reasonable accommodation considerations firmly in my toolbox of practice. There is still more to achieve.

Happy birthday to the Americans with Disabilities Act and all who made this law possible.

Congratulations to the disability rights leaders and allies throughout the world who are working on their own laws and policies to create a more just and equitable world. 

Onward, upward.

Susan Sygall