2015 is the 25th anniversary of the signing of the ADA. We will be posting 25 posts over the next 12 months which will focus on the ADA- how it has changed society and what still needs to be done. Our goal is to cover for you, dear reader, as many different angles and issues as possible. Below is the third post in our #ADA25For25 series. The most recent post can be viewed here
Before passing the ADA, Congress examined the state of people with disabilities in America. They found people with disabilities experienced discrimination in areas such as employment, housing, education, transportation, communication, recreation, institutionalization, health services, voting and access to public services. People with disabilities were frequently isolated and segregated from the rest of society and were routinely excluded from many aspects of life due to a lack of accessibility. Further, they found people with disabilities who have experienced discrimination, unlike people who experienced discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, religion or age, often had no legal recourse for that discrimination and were unable to win compensation.
Congress decided the nation’s goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency. Then it decided the purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act are (among others): to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities; to provide clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination against people with disabilities; and to ensure that the federal government plays a central role in enforcing the standards established in behalf of people with disabilities.
To the people who had worked hard to secure the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (the closest thing to a precursor of ADA there was) including participating in long-term takeovers of HEW buildings in San Francisco and other cities, the first version of the ADA introduced to Congress in 1988 was exciting and promised an end to lives of segregation and ongoing discrimination. While the final version of the ADA signed by President Bush in July 1990 came with changes and compromises, across America people with disabilities cheered their victory.
Now here we are 25 years after that historic day. How do we decide if the ADA is all it was supposed to be? I suggest making it personal. 25 years later are people with disabilities doing better than prior to 1990? Are we doing as well as Congress promised?
More people with disabilities are employed now than were in 1990, but overall people with disabilities are underemployed and have an employment rate much lower than people who have no disclosed disabilities.
Wheelchair users traveling by air recount horror stories about damaged or lost wheelchairs and injuries caused by contract employees who do not know how to transfer the traveler safely from the aisle chair to a seat on the plane. Guide dog and service dog teams report a routine inability to hail a taxi in cities across America because drivers do not want the dogs in their cabs.
Reports released in 2014 confirm that healthcare is unavailable to many people with disabilities. Physicians refuse to hire ASL interpreters for patients who are deaf, instead insisting the patient’s children interpret for them. Wheelchair users are often turned away when trying to make an appointment because the office is not accessible.
Voters who are blind or vision impaired find they are unable to vote at the polls because of poorly trained poll workers or non-functioning accessible voting machines. Voters who use wheelchairs frequently discover their polling place is inaccessible.
City infrastructure is often poorly maintained and designed, making travel around town difficult for people with a variety of disabilities. In some towns utility poles are installed in the middle of the sidewalk leaving no room for a wheelchair. In my city, our new Town Square comes with very high curbs. In one area there is no curb cut allowing someone to cross the street to reach the curb cut on the other side.
It is not unusual for people with severe disabilities to wait for years on a list hoping to be assigned care providers and home services. Until that time many are sent to nursing homes or other institutions. Imagine being a 16 year-old with quadriplegia and living among people in their 70s and 80s. This is true segregation.
This is where we are 25 years later. Yes, we have seen gains, but they have come very slowly. We have bounced back and forth as court decisions whittle away those gains and then return them piecemeal.
Why are we still fighting 25 years later? Where are the legal solutions promised in 1990? The business community, which should be embracing ADA as a relatively inexpensive way to achieve a larger customer base, has fought the changes imposed on it. They balk at installing accessible bathrooms and ramped entrances claiming the cost will put them out of business. With over 20% of the population experiencing some kind of disability, it seems the cost of installing an accessible entrance will be defrayed by the increase in business. We are an aging population and more and more of us require accessibility features.
We cannot legislate respect. After 25 years of the ADA what will it take to change the way Americans think about people with disabilities? Without respect there is no interest in or commitment to change.