There's not much in government that everyone can agree on. Well, actually, there's nothing - there are people so rabidly political that they couldn't agree on what color the sky is.
But one thing that comes close to being unanimous opinion is the great good that has come from the Americans With Disability Act.
On Sunday, the 25th anniversary of the act will be celebrated around the country. It still shines as one of the wonderful examples of what our country can achieve when it isn't being torn apart by political infighting. It troubles me to say, but I'm not sure our Congress today would be capable of enacting such a change.
Isn't it hard to imagine today? - that our society allowed widespread and dare I say inhumane discrimination against people with disabilities until as recently as 1990?
In 1971, a New York judge described people with disabilities as "the most discriminated [against] minority in our nation."
The Washington Post recently featured an essay by Robert Bergdorf Jr., the disability rights scholar who wrote the first version of the proposed bill that became the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1987.
He noted that until that time, large numbers of disabled children were excluded from public schools - estimates say a million at a time - and several times that number of children were allowed to go to school, but were not provided the basic services to get an equal education.
The disabled were often institutionalized in state facilities that were described as "sub-human" and "a blot on the conscience"... "The most helpless and defenseless of our citizens were left living on a thread of life... rotting in inadequate warehouses, the living among the dead, the dead among the living."
Think about life before 1990 in Storm Lake. No accessible doors that would let a person with a walker or wheelchair access a courthouse, city hall, school buildings or most stores. No cut curbs that would let people with mobility issues walk safely in their town. No elevators in public places of more than one story. No handrails, no ramps, no accessible public buses.
Change didn't come easily, it rarely does. Some fought the act, on the federal and local level. They didn't see any need to spend the money to make places accessible, they thought the disabled were best kept out of sight. They put off making the changes for as long as they could get away with it. The debate was still going on here when I arrived in the mid-1980s; I could name names of the people who worked to hold up progress, though there is no point now.
In fact, the whining over the cost to change over doors or renovate restrooms to be accessible was so prolific, I sat and pondered what to do about it. And had an idea.
I recruited the mayor here at the time, a lovely and intellectual lady named Sandra Madsen. I borrowed a wheelchair from the hospital and put the mayor in it for a day, no standing up allowed, and followed her as she tried to make her way around town.
Man, did she struggle. Sweating and inching her way over dangerous crubs, and forced to wheel herself at times in the traffic on the street because sidewalks were inadequate. Finding it impossible to get into buildings, or to get where she needed to go when she got there. Not being served because counters were too high and people couldn't see her. The looks she got. Let's just say that it was a long, long day for madam mayor. I followed along and documented every struggle. Our last trip was city hall itself, for a meeting she had to attend. The mayor went to open the door, and couldn't. She pulled, and slid and tugged and fought and tried every possible angle. Our own mayor couldn't get to her own office, no matter what.
And at that moment, for the only time in many years I had known a calm, cultured, gentlewoman, I heard Mrs. Mayor let out a loud, clear, frustrated and very explicit cuss word.
We ran the story big and bold. You had better believe, an accessible door was bolted onto City Hall not long after that, curbs were cut, sidewalks were improved.
Iowa had a big hand in bringing the Americans with Disabilities Act to fruition, with Senator Tom Harkin as its most vocal advocate in Congress.
"Tom Harkin dedicated his life and his work in the United States Senate to improving the lives of people with disabilities. Inspired by his brother, Frank, who was deaf, and his passion for expanding rights of disabled Americans, Senator Harkin sponsored and championed the Americans with Disabilities Act. Senator Harkin even delivered the first speech in American Sign Language on the Senate floor," recalls Andy McGuire of the Iowa Democratic Party.
"Senator Harkin shined a bright light on issues facing disabled Americans and our need as a country to become more inclusive."
Indeed. At its heart, though, it wasn't politics that brought about this monumental civil rights change, it was the disabled themselves.
In Storm Lake and everywhere else, we saw them struggle against barriers physical and societal, fighting to achieve great things and live full lives. We had to break down the barriers.
We haven't done all we could or should, even now. Places like Genesis work activity and Faith, Hope & Charity in our community still have to struggle to exist, and public places like Santa's Castle are still to be made accessible (in the works now.)
But rapidly, we converted an entire country to be more welcoming and inclusive, and that is a big, big deal. Happy birthday, ADA. You changed us for the better.