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Emilio Pacheco (c) is a volunteer who works with the disabled in the Philadelphia area.

Emilio Pacheco (c) is a volunteer who works with the disabled in the Philadelphia area.

Jim Smith/ El/Hispano

Philadelphia- While Hurricane Sandy was wreaking havoc across much of New Jersey and New York city in October of 2012, Melba Torres, 53, was just one of hundreds who lost electricity in her apartment complex.

With the building cast in darkness and elevator no longer working, an NPR report noted that  Ms. Torres- who suffers with cerebral palsy and requires an electric wheelchair to move about – was not only trapped in her 8th floor apartment, but was scarcely able to move around a place she has decorated with an enormous Puerto Rican flag.

The recognition of the vulnerability of the nation’s disabled to such natural disasters was a catalyst for the passage of an “American with Disabilities Act” (ADA) in the fall of 1990, legislation that was characterized by Pres. George H.W. Bush as allowing, “the shameful walls of exclusion to come tumbling down.”

On Saturday, some four to five hundred of the city’s disabled community, along with advocates and supporters, gathered at City Hall’s Dilworth Plaza to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the  Americans Disabilities Act (ADA). A comprehensive law signed by Pres. George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, the ADA resulted in providing the type of employment, housing and public service protections granted to other minorities in the civil rights laws of the mid-1960s.

From modified curbs, ramps at offices buildings and apartments, talking street lights and vehicles, to buses and trains equipped with lifts to accommodate wheelchairs; the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) has produced a quiet revolution in the physical and social contours of our cities and nation.

Despite the great advances made in the last quarter of a century due to the ADA, the law’s principal author, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), suggested, “we still have a long way to go.” It was a message echoed by former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Councilman Dennis O’Brien.

“Life without the ADA would be one of exclusion and isolation,” said Councilman O’Brien, a longtime advocate for the disabled in Harrisburg and city hall.

As Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell advocates for the homeless, and Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez is the voice of immigrants and Latinos, Councilman Dennis O’Brien has similarly spoken out on behalf of the disabled in the city and beyond.

“Individuals with disabilities aren’t the problem, we are the problem,” asserted Councilman O’Brien, who called on that 80 percent of the population who are not disabled, to “recognize” the one-fifth disabled-population in our community, as our “neighbors, family members, coworkers and students.”

The Republican Councilman noted the law’s comprehensive nature had “shifted the burden,” requiring society to make the necessary accommodations and adopt “technologies” that make public facilities and private businesses accessible to all.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell recalled the progress made during his own administration, with equal treatment of disabled largely being achieved through policies that allowed funds “to follow the person,” not the institution. In addition, providing incentives and subsidies to construction firms meant “disabled-friendly” construction practices.

After identifying some of the leaders of the movement to pass the ADA, including Justin Dart and photographer Tom Olin, Sen. Harkin described July 26th, 1990 as a time, “When we declared victory over intolerance, victory over discrimination, victory over prejudice and victory over fear.”

In identifying the four goals of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA): full participation, equal opportunity, independent living and economic self-sufficiency and jobs, Sen. Harkin said that much had been accomplished regarding the first two. But the last two, he added,  “need a lot of work.”

Photographer Tom Olin toured the country in this Freedom bus to push passage of ADA.

Photographer Tom Olin toured the country in this Freedom bus to push passage of ADA.

With the adult-disabled population experiencing an unemployment rate hovering near 80 percent, Sen. Harkin urged advocacy efforts aimed at reducing those jobless numbers.

While stressing the need to “change attitudes and perceptions,” Sen. Harkin suggested that employers “need to look at people and discover what the (disabled) can do,” not what they can’t.

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