On July 26, 1990, the subject of disabilities was featured on the front-page of newspapers around the globe for the first time. On that day, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and discrimination against people with disabilities became illegal. It also became an international human rights issue. This year, Lex Frieden (BS ’71)’ the chief architect of the ADA, was honored with the 2017 Fries Prize for Improving Health from the CDC Foundation. The award was presented in Atlanta, November 6, 2017, at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA).
“I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to play a role in enacting the ADA.” Frieden said. “While I am very honored by the recognition of my work on the legislation, I’ve never felt like I was in this alone or entirely responsible for it.”
As a freshman at Oklahoma State University, Frieden broke his neck and subsequently returned to Tulsa to pursue his education. After applying to Oral Roberts University, he was told they did not accept students with disabilities. “That didn’t make sense to me. I couldn’t understand it. I still can’t,” he said.
Frieden attended The University of Tulsa, and he used his ORU experience as motivation to change the perception of people with disabilities: “Some people didn’t define that as discrimination, but as we began to think about it, clearly it was a type of discrimination based on a condition over which we have no control,” he explained.
“I didn’t choose to be a person with a disability, but I became one.”
There are more than 56.7 million Americans with disabilities, and the ADA has improved their quality of life and expanded their opportunities. From ensuring employers provide accommodations to requiring public entities to comply with regulations for access to their programs and services, the ADA strives to provide equal rights to those with disabilities. “We recognize that despite their impairments, people with disabilities can be just as productive as anyone else and perhaps even more so in some cases,” Frieden said.
Since the ADA passed, the United Nations followed suit in 2006 when the General Assembly adopted The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. “Many other countries including some you might not think of offhand are aggressively pursuing equal access and making the requirement that every new building be accessible to people with disabilities,” he said.
Frieden is a professor of biomedical informatics at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, and he remains a tireless advocate for those with disabilities. There is still advocacy work to do. “We know from surveys that oddly enough many healthcare providers and clinics are not fully accessible. There are hospitals that are not accessible to people with disabilities,” he said, “and there are 76 million Baby Boomers who will soon be acquiring disabilities and who will need community-based services and supports.”
Frieden is flattered by the recognition from the APHA and from the CDC and Fries Foundations. “I’m grateful to the Fries Prize jury and the Centers for Disease Control Foundation for acknowledging my work and that of many other advocates to get the Americans with Disabilities Act passed and implemented. The ADA ensures equal opportunity for people with disabilities and improves the quality of life for everyone in our society.”