NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Fla. — Nancy Olson wouldn't be able to enjoy the beach if it weren't for one landmark piece of legislation.
What You Need To Know
- Paralympian Nancy Olson has personally experienced benefits of ADA
- The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990
- ADA advocate says they could tackle web accessibility next
Olson, a two-time Paralympian in wheelchair tennis, has benefited firsthand from the changes made by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which turns 30 on July 26 and improved the lives of millions nationwide.
Olson lost both her legs in a tragic crash when she was just 25 years old.
“I had a little fender-bender, was out exchanging information with the police officer, and someone else lost control (of their vehicle) and pinned me between the two cars,” Olson said.
Her life changed in an instant.
“I remember in the '80s traveling, and I would always have to be carried off the plane," said Olson, remembering being afraid of being dropped.
But seven years later, in 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.
“I was ecstatic," Olson said. “It's affected the disabled’s life in every facet."
After the ADA was passed, she began to see things change for the better.
“Going to the grocery store and just having different things available to you, the carts that are there, close parking spaces, the availability of asking for help is no issue... I can’t think of an area that it hasn’t helped,” Olson said.
Karen Clay, president of the Democratic Disability Caucus of Florida, says the legislation marked the first time that the rights of those with disabilities were really outlined.
“It's improved the lives of individuals with disabilities by opening the door to employment and ensuring that accommodations would be made in the workplace. It has also eliminated barriers, like curbs or buildings that weren’t accessible. Schools had to be made accessible, so the ADA has really done a great deal for individuals with disabilities, and we need to protect it," Clay said.
In Florida alone, Clay says 28.1% of all adults identify as having a disability — more than a quarter of the population.
“I think that the ADA has also allowed individuals to not try to hide that they have a disability, because they shouldn’t be ashamed. There is nothing that they should be afraid of when they ask for an accommodation," Clay said. “And the ADA gives them that strength, that power to say, ‘Well I can ask for this because it is the law.’"
Olson now leads an independent life and believes the ADA is partially to thank for that.
“We’ve come a long way, baby … and just seeing more disabled (people) in society out there doing things, their own thing — that’s because of the ADA. They have the opportunities to do it," Olson said. "They have the opportunities to get the funding to get the things they need, the hands controls the vehicles adapted for them … so the more people you see out, that is because of the ADA.”
For the future of the ADA, Clay says the next big obstacle to tackle is web accessibility. She says it’s been a challenge for the deaf, visually impaired, and others as technology constantly evolves. She says there is legislation being worked on to include outlines for those issues in the act.
As Olson drives around to her favorite beach spots, to her, the ADA is about much more than technology, curbs, and ramps.
“Being in the wheelchair, you don’t get back to nature very much," said Olson, as she pushed herself up the boardwalk ramps at Smyrna Dunes Park. For her, it is about enjoying the same quality of life as everyone else.
“This park is totally wheelchair-accessible. It would have not been built wheelchair-accessible if it wasn’t for the ADA," Olson said. “It is such a beautiful area, and because of the ADA and parks like this, (we) get to enjoy it, and I think it’s a very important part of life.”
In the next 30 years of the ADA, she sees even more accessibility for all on the horizon.
“Only good things to come,” Olson said.