Ian RuderOn the list of “terrible things about flying as a wheelchair user,” being referred to as “an ADA” by inconsiderate airline staff probably ranks somewhere between having your wheelchair damaged and waiting for everyone to deplane before getting off. It’s dehumanizing, embarrassing and, honestly, just rude.

It’s bad enough having to be strapped into the world’s least comfortable chair and delivered to the seat like a slab of meat on a dolly. But hearing another human reduce your existence to an acronym for a piece of legislation — often while refusing to make eye contact — is the final step in complete objectification.

It’s a legacy Justin Dart and the other disability leaders who fought for the Americans with Disabilities Act over 30 years ago surely didn’t envision, and probably wouldn’t have been thrilled about. But as ugly as it may be, I think there is a good argument that the use of “an ADA” is actually evidence of one of the law’s most meaningful impacts: giving Americans a framework and a vocabulary (however limited) to openly discuss disability rights and see them as civil rights.

Outspoken disability activists and advocates long ago understood that disability rights are civil rights, but prior to the passage of the ADA, I don’t think most Americans understood what they meant. The ADA has become what no previous disability legislation managed: an animating embodiment of the belief that disabled people should enjoy the same civil rights as everyone else.

The airline employee who calls me “an ADA” has probably never heard of Section 504, and probably doesn’t know that it’s actually the Air Carrier Access Act that protects my equal rights as an airline passenger, but he does know that I am entitled to equal rights, and he associates that with the ADA.

Would I rather have him thoughtfully engage me on the merits of in-home support services and why a broader application of the Olmstead decision makes a lot of sense? Of course I would. And in no way am I trying to excuse his total lack of people skills and compassion. But it’s progress.

Now you can definitely argue that’s a small step for 30 years, and you’re 100% right, but there are plenty of examples of bigger steps surrounding us everywhere we look, from public transit to architecture, employment and beyond. I chose this example because it speaks to the law’s impact on the collective consciousness — that dark corner of society that can be so hard to light up.

Clearly, the ADA wasn’t a panacea, but between the highly visible efforts of activists and the actual regulations it enshrined, the act managed to shed some light in the darkness and wake the general public up to the rights so many of us were being denied.

The ADA has given us a framework to discuss the progress and the shortcomings of the disability rights movement, and for that I am grateful. Thirty years of fighting has developed that framework into a solid foundation of public consciousness and legal protections. Now we have to finish building our home.