As a Uruguayan, the Americans with Disabilities Act Makes Me Believe Change is Possible

Decorative text in blue, red, and yellow reads "disability rights are human rights."
Image: BarsRsind/Shutterstock

Thirty years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is worth thinking about not only how it affects the United States, but also those who look at it from afar.

When I wanted to enroll in English classes at my school in Uruguay, a private institution, I couldn’t do it. One of the teachers refused, claiming that my visual impairment prevented her from teaching me like the other students, and that she would not know how to adapt the classes for me. There was nothing we could do. A situation like this, experienced by thousands of people every day in different countries, would be covered by Title III of the ADA – but in Uruguay, a law like this does not exist. It’s similar for people with disabilities in many countries around the world. However, the ADA, by its very presence, can lay the groundwork for change.

In Uruguay, in addition to the international Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), there is a law that, to some extent, is intended to protect our rights.  Law 18.651, passed just 10 years ago, aims to regulate access to aspects of life such as education and work for people with disabilities, but since most of its articles are not regulated, in practice its application is very limited. There is also no regulatory framework that considers the denial of reasonable accommodation as an act of discrimination. And since the law in general lacks punitive measures, its operation is often limited to paper, which allows situations like the one that happened to me to occur, and nothing is done to prevent them.

Access to public spaces is not the only thing affected by the inefficiency of existing laws. In the field of work, things are even more difficult. The possibility of denying reasonable accommodation without consequences for companies means that, for example, people with hearing disabilities are denied basic rights, such as the use of a sign language interpreter, and that many people with reduced mobility cannot work because of the barriers that exist in many workplaces. Situations such as these do not only occur in Uruguay; in many countries of the region, despite the existence of some laws, their application is often very low.

“Once I got on a long-distance bus to travel, the bus driver told me that I couldn’t go up alone, without an escort,” says Marina Piemonte, a 28-year-old Argentine woman with a vision disability. “Something similar happened to me in a taxi. I was alone: a woman, blind, alone, at 3 a.m., with a suitcase, and the man was telling me that I couldn’t go. This type of situation has happened to Piemonte in various areas, from work to culture.

For countries that have them, the difficulty in enforcing such laws lies not only in their ambiguity and lack of regulation. The limited means available to file complaints and the reluctance of many lawyers to accept cases they are likely to lose also play a significant role.

Outside of Latin America, there are many countries that could take an example from a law like the ADA. In Equatorial Guinea, one of the richest countries in Africa and the only one where Spanish is spoken as an official language, for example, there is not even a regulatory framework to defend the rights of persons with disabilities, which in many cases prevents access to education or work. The lack of laws prevents, for example, people with visual impairment from accessing the traditional education system, and makes a large part of public spaces – from cinemas to transport – inaccessible, without any sanctions.

These examples reflect a reality experienced by millions of people with disabilities around the world. The lack of laws or their ineffectiveness prevent us from claiming rights that belong to us simply because we are human. The ADA is a law we can look to for help breaking this pattern.

So for me, as a citizen of a country where disability rights laws do not apply and are insufficient, the ADA represents much more than a law that applies in a distant country; it represents the change I want to see reflected in my own country. The fact that there is such a comprehensive and functioning law in another country only shows me that this change is not so far away. The way in which the law was applied 30 years ago and the way in which it is applied today are not only examples of action, but also point the way forward for those people who, like me, want something like this to happen in our countries.

That is why, on July 26, when Americans celebrate the anniversary of a law that has allowed people with disabilities to claim their rights and fight discrimination, I will celebrate with them, building on the successes and what still needs to be improved. I know that, in time, something like this will happen in my own country, and I will be able to be part of that change. On July 26, I will celebrate a law that is inspiring a generation of people with disabilities to stand up and make sure that, once and for all, the echoes of this law reach the world.

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Milagros Costabel is a freelance writer and disability rights advocate from Colonia, Uruguay. She writes mostly about social issues, and believes that words have the power to change the world and challenge the realities we live in. You can find her @mili_costabel on Twitter.