Meesha Johnson says she couldn't have received her associate degree in social work from Suffolk County Community College in May without the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"This is an accomplishment I am very proud of," said Johnson, 38, of the Shinnecock Indian Nation in Southampton, to an audience Saturday at the Lake Ronkonkoma firehouse.
Johnson, who is blind, was one of more than 150 people with disabilities to turn out for the Suffolk Independent Living Organization's ADA 25th anniversary party. The landmark legislation, which banned discrimination against people on the basis of disability and codified special services and access, was signed by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990.
The party included face painting, performances, a photo booth and tables with information for Suffolk County residents with a range of disabilities as well as speakers and an open-mic session.
It was a chance to celebrate progress, but those with disabilities still have a long political journey before them, advocates said.
"It's important to celebrate how far we've come, but also recognize how far we have to go to full accessibility," SILO executive director Joseph Delgado said.
Delgado and other attendees spoke about the need to increase awareness and lobby to expand existing services, such as Suffolk County Accessible Transportation services for those who cannot drive.
William Seitz, 26, said he's struggled in the past with employment and insurance access. He was fired from his job at a frozen yogurt shop for staring into space and neglecting his duties before he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other mental issues, he said.
When he learned about the ADA and was able to get insurance through the Affordable Care Act, he realized he had access to opportunities in life that he once viewed as "dark hallways" and "boarded-up doors. . . . The ADA helped me to take out those nails, to open those doors, to see a way out," Seitz, of Lake Grove, told the crowd.Advocacy starts with those who are disabled standing up for themselves, like she did in her education and the Shinnecock Nation, Johnson said.
"I am a firm believer that it is our responsibility to know what our rights are," she said. "We need to be very vigilant that we are included in these laws."