Changing The Game…The ADA at 25

Americans with Disabilities Act enacted July 26, 1990

This year, our nation celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The date was July 26, 1990 and it had been the largest gathering of people in the history of our country for the signing of a bill at the White House. All kinds of disabilities were represented that day — from physical disabilities to intellectual disabilities to mental illness. A huge audience of people with disabilities, including their family, friends and congressional supporters had come to celebrate the victory over prejudice. 

One of the supporters who was on the south lawn of the White House that historic day was the U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (retired), one of the original sponsors of the ADA bill. 

“I will never forget the words of George H.W. Bush when he signed it,” said Senator Harkin.

“Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down,” said former President George H.W. Bush as he signed the ADA bill into law.

Fast forward 25 years later, I had the opportunity to be in the front row in Daley Plaza when Senator Harkin addressed a crowd at the 2015 Disability Pride Parade, part of the ADA25Chicago celebration. 

As a person with special needs, I was among the crowd witnessing another historic day. There are one in 10 of us in Illinois who have some kind of disability. In America, there are approximately 43 million people who have a disability. The day was this past July 18, 2015. A day where we looked at how far we’ve come in the disability rights movement and the work that still needs to be done. 

Senator Harkin shared that, before the ADA, it was extremely difficult for people with disabilities to go to sporting events, cross the street, ride public transportation or even get into buildings.  Today, that has changed. Harkin also shared about the work in the disability rights movement that still needs to be done. For example, he shared that in London, England, every taxi is fully accessible. Harkin stressed the importance that every taxi in every city in the United States needs to be fully accessible. 

Harkin described the early progress that is being made. A car company called, MV1, has already begun this process and Chicago has about 100 of these cars in use today.

There are four goals of the ADA that are each vitally important for all people with special needs. These goals are that we have full participation, equal opportunity, independent living and economic self-sufficiency.

One of the largest disability groups is those with intellectual disabilities. I am among this group.  According to Special Olympics, the largest global movement for people with intellectual disabilities, there are approximately 200 million in the world who have an intellectual disability. A week after the ADA25Chicago celebration, I had made the trip across the country to Los Angeles, California.

It was here, as America hosted the Special Olympics 2015 World Summer Games, that a groundbreaking poll was released. Together with the Special Olympics World Games and the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, The Shriver Report Snapshot: Insight Into Intellectual Disabilities in the 21st Century had revealed that we are a nation in the midst of change. Together Shriver Media and Special Olympics International released this groundbreaking poll that was supported by the Richard and Cecilia Attias Foundation and was conducted online by Harris Poll in July 2015.

The Shriver Report Snapshot revealed that we are a nation divided. It also says that, while exposure to those of us with intellectual disabilities increases acceptance and positivity, it is a lack of exposure to us that drives fear and misunderstanding of what it is like to live with an intellectual disability. 

One of my missions through this Special Voices Column and through the podcasts on Special Chronicles is to help build more understanding about those of us with disabilities. 

“Daniel is very sincere in trying to help bridge the gap in how people without any disabilities see others with either an intellectual and or a physical disability,” said Daniel Hayes, a member of the Knights of Columbus in California, adding “and realize that everyone is different in some way, but, despite these differences, we can all strive for our own dreams and aspirations, and help each other to achieve them.”

It was in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the ADA that Special Olympics International launched a new campaign and challenge called PLAY — Let’s Change The Game. At a press conference that I attended at the Special Olympics 2015 World Games in Los Angeles, Maria Shriver, founder of Shriver Media and a board member at Special Olympics International, discussed this campaign.

This campaign is simple, she explained. Its mission is encourage all people to play, learn, accept, and say “yes” together. The goal is to change the world to have common ground among people of all abilities.

“This Shriver Report Snapshot reveals that experience, inclusion and intervention are the ways to combat isolation, intolerance and injustice,” said Janet Froetscher, CEO of Special Olympics, adding, “all of us have the ability to change the game and create inclusion in our communities.”

It is this inclusion and acceptance that is the game-changing ingredient that will lead to changing attitudes toward those of us with intellectual disabilities.

One of the goals of the ADA is for us to have economic self-sufficiency and to live independently. 

The Shriver Report Snapshot reports that there are only 56 percent of Americans who personally know someone with an intellectual disability, and 42 percent of Americans have no personal contact with someone with an intellectual disability.

“The more we can increase contact, the more we can increase experiences young people will go on to start to work, they’ll hire people with intellectual disabilities, they’ll have them as their friends, [and] they’ll be in their social circle,” said Maria Shriver.

Those who personally know someone with an intellectual disability have a 92 percent chance of having their children in the same class with a child with an intellectual disability. At the same time they have a 53 percent chance of having their child date and a 47 percent chance of marrying someone with an intellectual disability, according to the Shriver Report Snapshot.

This shows us that, although the ADA helps toward self-sufficiency, we still have more work to do to encourage others to accept us.  As Maria Shriver explains we need to figure out how others can accept us. Once we have acceptance, we can break down the barriers and therefore hearts and minds will be opened. Together we will then have common ground among all people.

Those of us with intellectual disabilities, desire to have full participation in all parts of life, including being able to vote in elections. More than one in five Americans, or 22 percent, believe that adults with intellectual disabilities should not be allowed to vote in elections, the Shriver Report Snapshot reports. 

Maria Shriver said that she is hopeful that people will remember those statistics and the simple acronym, “PLAY,” a call to action to people across the country to Play, Learn, Accept, and say “Yes” to including those of us with intellectual disabilities, and talk to their children about it.

Shriver had mentioned that in most other parts of the world, these numbers are much smaller.

Together Special Olympics International and Shriver Media hope that this snapshot will ignite change because of the information and inspiration that it provides. It has a clear call to action.   To change the game so that the world knows: we bring value to humanity.

I hope that you will join me in advocating for those of us with special needs that we be accepted and included. 

Join me and let’s change the game for acceptance and inclusion. To hear more of my coverage, tune in to Special Chronicles at

Daniel Smrokowski is an Athlete and Global Messenger with Special Olympics Illinois on the Southeast Association for Special Parks and Recreation team. Daniel was born three-and-a-third months premature and was diagnosed with learning disabilities and a severe language disorder.  He is the founder of Special Chronicles nonprofit new media company, a pioneering network that gives respect and voice to people with special needs.

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