• Jeffrey Zalles

The ADA and Climate Change

July 26 will mark the 28th anniversary of what I consider to be the legislative high point of my lifetime. On this day, America made an audacious and compassionate commitment, one that would cost the many and benefit the few. A commitment that would end discrimination of an entire class of citizens based upon a physical or mental impairment. On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the bipartisan Americans with Disabilities Act into law. At his signing ceremony, the President spoke eloquently, declaring “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” What followed was more than just a law that would forbid discrimination in employment and housing. The ADA set in motion the expenditure of billions of dollars by the public and private sectors to rebuild our infrastructure and insure equal access to all public facilities by those with physical disabilities.

Predictably, there was the expected opposition to the ADA. A reactionary US Chamber of Commerce warned that the economy would be severely impacted. Other business organizations followed suit. Conservative pro-business commentators wrote that the ADA was "an expensive headache to millions" that would not necessarily improve the lives of people with disabilities. There was even opposition from church groups like the National Association of Evangelicals who opposed the ADA on grounds of religious liberty. But in the end, compassion and fairness triumphed, and America once again demonstrated its greatness to the world.

Now we are faced with a new challenge. The actions we take to meet this challenge will determine the future of all humanity. I refer to, of course, climate change and the warming of our planet. We’ve all heard the arguments for and against taking action, but the facts remain: Nine of the past ten years have seen record-breaking heat. Storms are becoming more intense. Wildfires are now a way of life in the West. Polar ice continues to melt at an alarming rate. And recently, as the evidence builds, the scientific community is beginning to acknowledge that its original timetables may have been too optimistic, and that the planet is heating up much faster than originally predicted.

The irony is that meeting the challenges of climate change could require less sacrifice than meeting those set forth in the ADA. Let’s take one small example: The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 mandated the gradual phase out of incandescent lightbulbs. As one would expect, there was the usual opposition that ranged from predictions of job losses to the forfeiture of freedom of choice, but common sense prevailed and now we all sing the praises of LED lightbulbs that are affordable to buy, last longer and cost far less to burn. Other nations have initiated similar laws and the amounts of greenhouse gasses emitted to power lighting have been reduced worldwide.

The logical solution to climate change would be a tax on carbon combined with legislation to accelerate the phase out the dirtiest fuels like coal. Yes, we would all be paying more for the energy we consume, but only for a little while, because, as consumers, we would demand products like LED bulbs that would provide the same benefits while using less energy to operate. Before long, the cost of consumption would drop even as the price of energy remained high, and we’d all be singing the praises of the new and more efficient products we used.

If you want to understand the enormous achievement the Americans with Disabilities Act represents, travel from the US to a city like Paris. As you navigate the city, imagine yourself in a wheelchair. Likely, you will be stunned by the barriers faced by disabled residents and you will realize what we as a nation accomplished when we put our minds, and our hearts, to the task.

We can do it again, starting this November, when we go to the polls and elect representatives who recognize the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in. Once more, America can demonstrate its greatness as a nation and lead the world out of this crisis and into a better future for our children and all mankind.