As the nation remembers and honors George Herbert Walker Bush this week, a lasting memorial to one of the late president’s legacies is finally under construction at the old library on Fairbank Street.
Many consider the Americans with Disabilities Act, which Bush signed into law in 1990, his most important contribution to the common good, particularly to the well-being of many millions of individuals with disabling physical limitations. Bush himself used a wheelchair in his last years, and it allowed him to continue his active, public life. Now the benefits of the act will be available at yet another town building.
The phrase “ADA compliant” has become part of the nation’s vocabulary in the same way that “civil rights violation” has, and with good reason. If we can all agree that everyone should have equal rights under the law, then surely everyone should have equal access to public buildings and accommodations. Still, as is the case with civil rights, ADA compliance is very much a work in progress.
While much progress has been made throughout the country in the nearly 30 years since the law went into effect, Harvard’s record is not stellar. The town has taken advantage of loopholes in the law at every opportunity, so that ADA compliance, when it comes, is typically a mandatory by-product of new construction. The upper Town Hall became accessible several years ago only when the whole building was renovated. And Hildreth House, Harvard’s senior center, became fully accessible in 2016 as part of its phase 1 improvements. In the schools, it’s a mixed bag: Bromfield is fully accessible, but Hildreth Elementary School does not meet current ADA requirements. Bromfield House, which houses the school district offices, is not fully accessible.
The project to create a fully accessible front entrance to the old library is the first accessibility change undertaken by the town for the sole purpose of complying with the letter—and the spirit—of the law, even though there was no pressing requirement to do so. The strong public support for the project recognizes that providing equal access to a public building is not just a legal requirement, but a moral imperative.
It’s not a partisan issue, and these days, that’s enough cause for celebration as we remember a president who made it the law of the land.