On a warm day in July, Clarks Green council member and disabilities advocate Keith Williams visited the White House to celebrate the 25th anniversary signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Advocacy has always been my principal occupation,” he said.
Williams began working at the Center for Independent Living in 1987. The center helps provide services to those with disabilities in 27 counties to ensure they may live as independently as possible. Shortly after he began working, Senate and House bills were introduced and passed to become the American with Disabilities Act. Williams attended the bill’s signing by President George H. W. Bush in 1990.
Flash forward to 25 years later. Williams was in the East Room of the White House on July 20 to celebrate the anniversary of the bill. “It was interesting to be involved almost from the ground floor,” he said.
Since its inception, the ADA supports accessibility to buildings, parking spaces, ramps, interpreters for the deaf and hard of hearing and more accommodations for people with a range of disabilities and fights discrimination in schools and the work place.
“It’s been heartening to see the changes that have been made with the ADA, especially in education,” Williams said.
Williams lives with congenital arthrogryposis, or stiffening of the joints, and a secondary disability of amytonia, lack of muscle control. When he was in school, he was segregated in special education classes at the Abington Heights Intermediate Unit.
“The only reason I was in that school is because I have a disability, even though it was only physical,” he said.
Thanks to his mother, Catherine, whom he called the “original advocate,” Williams was transferred at age 15 to the Abington Heights North campus where he was integrated into the high school classes and graduated with friends his age.
“It would be absolutely unheard of now to send a public school student with a physical disability somewhere other than the school where their friends are going,” he said.
“Now there is a whole generation of children with disabilities who have so much more accessibility. With a few exceptions in between, this generation doesn’t know what it’s like to not be able to go places because the majority of businesses have become more accessible due to ADA.”
While the positive changes are encouraging, Williams said there is still progress to be made. It’s important to get the message out there to let people know it’s not as difficult to comply with ADA as they may think and that accessibility helps build clientele.
“I would like to see more businesses take that to heart in the Abingtons,” he said. “I would encourage small businesses to take a look at their entrances, parking areas and restrooms, especially now in light of the 25th anniversary of the ADA and make a commitment to people with disabilities to make their businesses more user-friendly.”
Another major challenge Williams said advocates still face is “invisible” disabilities such as an emotional, cognitive or learning disability.
“There are accommodations needed for them,” he said. “There is a whole world of research being done on people with invisible disabilities and the importance of providing accommodations for them, as well.”
Williams said the White House event was “amazing.” People from across the nation, along with representatives from nonprofit and advocacy organizations, gathered in the East Room where President Barack Obama honored the advocates, lawmakers and all who contributed to ensuring rights and accessibility for those with disabilities.
According to a press release from www.whitehouse.gov, President Obama told the audience, “Thanks to the ADA, the places that comprise our shared American life…they truly belong to everyone.”
Williams took an opportunity to shake hands with the president and Vice President Joe Biden and ensured some local recognition.
When the president made his rounds throughout the room shaking hands and saying hello, Williams said, “My friend picked up my arm and stretched it out over the shoulder of the person in front of me and sure enough I shook hands with the president.”
He thanked President Obama for his work with the ADA and told the president he was from Northeastern Pennsylvania.
“He got a big grin on his face and he said ‘I got to tell Joe,’” Williams laughed.
According to Williams, the president called to Vice President Biden and told him there was someone from Scranton in the crowd. When Vice President Biden made his way to Williams’ side of the room, Williams told him he lived in Clarks Green and worked in Scranton at the Center for Independent Living on Sanderson Avenue.
The vice president reportedly exclaimed, “Sanderson Avenue! I can’t believe it,” and Williams added sometimes they order lunch from Hank’s Hoagies on Woodlawn Street. According to Williams, the vice president laughed and said, “’I wonder if they still have a picture of me over there.’”
“It was quite the experience,” Williams said.