27 Years of the ADA: One Family’s Journey

Lara Swenson was 18 months old when she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. It was 1976 and commonplace for children like Lara to be institutionalized. Her parents refused to consider that option. Instead, they forged ahead to help Lara live a fulfilling life. Early on they discovered the Cerebral Palsy Center—now the Frazer Center—where Lara attended until she entered the public school system.

Although Lara was born in an era when the disabilities rights movement was gaining traction, there was still a long way to go. Lara’s mother Sigrid recalls a family visit to Washington DC, in 1988. Lara was 12 years old and very adept at using her electric wheelchair. When they arrived at the enormous National Gallery of Art, the only accessible entrance was in the back, two blocks away. After enjoying the exhibits for a while, they discovered that the only accessible restroom in the entire facility was tucked away at that same remote back entrance.  Accessibility was available, but more as an afterthought.

Two years later, on July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a comprehensive piece of civil rights legislation which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and guarantees the same opportunities as everyone else in the mainstream of American life, such as employment possibilities, use of public transportation, access to restaurants, stores, hotels, and other public buildings, and participation in government programs and services.

Lara and her family have seen tremendous improvements in accessibility and inclusion since the ADA was enacted. One of the most profound changes has been access to a Medicaid waiver, allowing Lara to participate in the Frazer Center’s Adult Programs which provide her with employment support, social and recreational opportunities, and the chance to pursue her own interests.

Housing opportunities have also evolved since the enactment of the ADA. Group homes have sprouted up to replace segregated institutions. Now people like Lara can live independently but with support. Lara enjoys living with her three roommates, and she spends a lot of time typing on her computer, something she has loved doing since she was little. She hopes to find the perfect job situation where she can put her data entry skills to good use. We at the Frazer Center are doing all we can to support Lara and other adults with disabilities to live an inclusive life of community and opportunity.