By: Emily Harris, Executive Director, ADA 25 Chicago

This year, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turns 25. It’s a powerful moment to celebrate the civil rights achievements of the past quarter century. Even more important, this year will be a catalyst for fulfilling the ADA’s promise of full participation in American society.

It’s my privilege to help create a platform for Chicago’s leadership to take action. While other cities are celebrating this anniversary, we are told over and over that the scope of our regional ADA 25 Chicago initiative is unique. Chicago is truly the city of “no little plans,” and once again we are demonstrating that diverse leaders are committed to solving problems and eliminating barriers.

This blog will feature numerous authors, each shining a spotlight on the issues we face and actions we want to inspire during this anniversary year. For our first post, I want to amplify our tag line:

We are greater together

Disability touches all of us. Whether apparent, or invisible, we are all connected to disability. After all, the disability community is the only minority group that anyone can join at any time. And as our population ages, our numbers are growing.

Many of us don’t even think of ourselves as having a disability, but if we need the ADA it’s there for us. I’m a case in point. When a sinus infection left me with permanent hearing loss, I didn’t think of it as a disability. But now, by identifying my disability, I am empowered to ask for accommodations if I need them, using the ADA as my tool. The same goes for my husband, who takes medication for chronic depression. And for my mother, who has limited mobility due to arthritis and other conditions – in fact she benefits every day from the bus lifts and curb cuts that the ADA brought us.

When we recognize that people with disabilities are our parents, brothers, sisters, friends, colleagues, doctors, lawyers, teachers, leaders – and ourselves – we all begin to think and act differently.

The ADA’s premise is that we all have a fundamental right to equal opportunity, and that means changing the world to make it work for as many of us as possible. That is what ADA 25 Chicago is all about.

Fulfilling the Promise for the Next 25 Years

While it’s time to celebrate the dramatic changes the ADA brought to our sidewalks, stores, trains, buses, public buildings, communications systems and more, there is still much to be done. People with disabilities still have double the poverty rate and twice the unemployment rate compared with those without disabilities. We face stigma and other barriers to full participation every day.

Together, we can and must tackle these issues. Halfway through this anniversary year, Chicago is responding to this challenge with creativity and commitment.

For example, more than 25 cultural institutions are pledging to increase their accessibility this year and in the future. Businesses are stepping up to join the Chicagoland Chamber’s new Business Leadership Network, which encourages workplaces, market places and supply chains to get a competitive advantage by fully including people with disabilities. The region’s mayors are asking all 273 communities in our seven-county region what they are doing about inclusion, and will be highlighting best practices. And that’s just a start.

We invite everyone to participate. Start this summer at Blues Fest on June 12 when we will celebrate the ADA’s anniversary with a performance by Clarence Carter. On June 24, come to the City Club of Chicago to hear Senator Tom Harkin speak about why he wrote this landmark legislation. On July 18, join the Disability Pride Parade. That same day, developers will be convening in a Hackathon at Motorola Mobility to find technology solutions that overcome barriers to inclusion.

See our calendar and program partner pages for more events and commitments. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. And join us in asking everyone you know what they are doing to advance inclusion in their own wheelhouse.

We will come together in November to announce the legacies and commitments made as a result of ADA 25 Chicago and ask everyone in our region to continue the momentum. Don’t wait until then – if you haven’t, start planning and participating now. We want to celebrate your commitment in the fall. It’s important for all of us.

We are greater together.

Emily Harris bio photo

Emily Harris joined the Chicago Community Trust in June 2014 to serve as Executive Director of ADA 25 Chicago. She is working with ADA 25 Chicago’s Honorary and Steering Committees to leverage the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act to advance full participation of people with disabilities in metropolitan Chicago. ADA 25 Chicago has more than 150 program partners who are raising awareness of the impact of this civil rights legislation and taking action to expand inclusion.

Emily is also Principal of Harris Strategies, LLC, which specializes in strategic planning and creating large-scale civic initiatives for non-profit organizations and public agencies. She was formerly Vice President of Metropolis Strategies (previously called Chicago Metropolis 2020) where she led research and policy programs in regional economic growth, open space conservation and early childhood education. From 2006 to 2009 she was Executive Director of the Burnham Plan Centennial, which convened hundreds of partner organizations around a celebration of regional planning focused on shaping a better future for the Chicago region.

Past positions include program director for Leadership Greater Chicago, Principal of Emily J. Harris Consulting, Executive Director of the Canal Corridor Association, and Vice President of ActiveLife Retirement Communities. Emily has a B.A. from Oberlin College and an M.A. in urban studies from the University of Chicago.