“I’ve been far less troubled in my life by the fact that I can’t walk than by all the barriers that I encounter in the world,” says longtime disability rights advocate Laura Rauscher ’82, ’00 MEd. “For so many of us with disabilities, a lot of the difficulties we encounter are social constructions that can and should change. The Americans with Disabilities Act has been phenomenally important in moving toward that goal.”
One of America’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunities for people with disabilities. The law was signed 25 years ago by President George H. W. Bush on July 26, 1990 after decades of stigmatization and social and economic marginalization of the disabled.
“I was able to attend UMass in the 80s because of the protests and activism that were the precursor to the ADA,” notes Rauscher. In 1977, sit-ins were held across the country demanding enforcement of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first major law to bar disability discrimination through federally funded programs. “People occupied the Health and Welfare Building in San Francisco for 25 days, which is the longest protest in a federal building in U.S. history. Because of that, public entities were forced to remove barriers that prevented access to people with disabilities.”
Although the 504 Sit-ins were a galvanizing moment for the disability rights community, Rauscher’s commitment to the cause was confirmed after working on a student project at the Belchertown State School, an institution for the developmentally disabled. “That experience solidified my commitment to dismantling those kinds of structures that segregated people, whether they were physical structures, funding streams or policies. That’s how I got into the disability rights movement.”
After graduating from UMass with a bachelor’s degree in consumer studies, Rauscher moved to California to work at the Center for Independent Living. “I worked for a woman named Judith Heumann, who was really the mother of the disability movement,” says Rauscher. “I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven because I was working for this incredible woman in this incredible place, which at the time, felt like Mecca for people with disabilities.”
Rauscher traveled the country helping to develop independent living programs for a time before landing in Washington DC to work as a policy fellow at the National Council on Disability. There, she conducted policy research for the report “Toward Independence: An Assessment of Federal Laws and Programs Affecting Persons with Disabilities.” The report created a policy framework for the ADA.
Returning to UMass to complete her master’s degree in education, Rauscher worked as the assistant director of Disability Services on campus and then as the director of the Office on Health and Disability with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in Boston. Currently, she is the director of Disability Services at Smith College and an adjunct professor at the Smith School of Social Work.
“As an advocate and educator, I want people to understand the phenomenon of ableism, which is a system of oppression that devalues disabled people and sets up the conditions for discrimination and exclusion on the basis of disability; it exists in systemic ways similar to racism and sexism. So it’s not the person’s actual condition that is the primary source of distress, it’s living in an inaccessible environment, with limited job opportunities, being separated from our communities and dealing with other people’s prejudices. Disability is in the environment and in our social policies, not in the person,” shares Rauscher.
As the ADA celebrates its 25th anniversary, Rauscher is conscious of the many advances in disability rights and is hopeful for even greater growth in the future. “Thirty years ago, we were fighting just to sit at the table,” she recalls. “Today, because so many people have been given opportunities as a result of the ADA, we’re not just sitting at the table; we are a part of the discussion and changing the game in ways that makes life better for people with disabilities and ultimately everyone in our communities in terms of things like education, healthcare, business and the arts.”