Editor’s note: October is Disabilities Awareness Month in Santa Monica and, as a result, the Daily Press presents a month-long series of articles by members of the Santa Monica Disabilities Commission.

Santa Monica has been a beacon of change from the moment it became a city in 1886. That tradition of forward thinking led to the creation of the Disabilities Commission in 2002. The commission advises City Council on various issues relating to disability access and inclusion. We have helped make the city a more disability-friendly place to live, work and play.

Our country has come a long way since the days when people with disabilities were segregated from the general population and locked in institutions for most, if not all, of their lives. The disability community has a rich history of fighting for civil rights that resulted in the passage of state and federal legislation to ensure equal access to employment, housing, transportation, communication, government and places of business. California has long been a leader in recognizing the civil rights of people with disabilities. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act will be 50 years old in 2009. The Americans with Disabilities Act, by contrast, celebrated its 18th anniversary this past July and the new ADA Amendments Act that was just signed by the president a few weeks ago is just catching up to the protections offered under California law. There is a reason the nation looks west when trying to predict the future of our country — we do it first.

As we celebrate Disabilities Awareness Month, I reflect on our progressive history and wonder, what’s next? For people with disabilities, access is equality. Unfortunately there are still many barriers to access and hence still much inequality. The barriers to employment are glaringly obvious when you consider how few people with disabilities are able to find and pursue careers that provide a livable income.

The barriers that exclude us from our communities are more subtle. Many of us still cannot drop by a friend’s home because of steps to the front door. What happens to those of us that live in an inaccessible home as we age and acquire a mobility disability? Should we move away from our community of family and friends? With the advancement of better design and building techniques it is easier to make our homes visit-able and thus livable by people of all ages and abilities. City Hall should offer incentives to developers and homeowners who build homes that offer “visitablity.” It is one way of ensuring that our community will continue to attract and retain a diverse demographic that includes people with disabilities.

People with disabilities now represent the largest minority group in the United States making up roughly 20 percent of the population regardless of ethnicity, age or gender. Advancements in medicine have made it possible for Americans to live longer and assistive technology, adaptive equipment and a variety of mobility aids have allowed more of us to live independently. It is in our best interest as a society to make our communities as accessible as possible to accommodate our evolving diverse demographic. We should make an Olympian effort to improve accessibility so that all of us have equal opportunity to enjoy of our community.

In a country with so many resources and so much ingenuity, you would think we could figure out how to make it possible for someone who uses a wheelchair or another mobility aid to get to the waterline on the beach independently. Our city took steps some time ago to provide a beach wheelchair that can be pushed through the sand and walkways that extend mid beach. That was a great accomplishment at the time, but if we want to support independence and true equality we should keep trying to improve access. Access is more than just parking spaces, sign language interpreters and talking crosswalks. Access is about inclusion in every aspect of our lives. It is about where and with whom we spend our time, where we work and how we live.

The commission meets the first Monday of the month at the Ken Edwards Center at 6:30 p.m. We welcome all public input, whether in person, by e-mail, or by telephone to the commission’s city staff liaison. If there is an issue or concern that you would like the commission to take a position on, please let us know. We are here for the community, with the hope of improving the quality of life for our residents and visitors with various disabilities.

Contact the Disabilities Commission at (310) 458-8701 or (310) 458-8696 (TTY).

Thomas J. Hill is the vice chair of the Disabilities Commission and a legal advocate specializing in public policy and disability law at the Disability Rights Legal Center.

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