ADA is Turning 30 – Disability Rights
By: Brian Elliott
On July 26th, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) will have officially been a law of the land across the U.S. following its signing and passing in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. The ADA is a civil rights law that has five Titles/Sections under its canopy which guarantee equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications. The ADA ensures that people with disabilities (PWD) are able to have the same opportunities and rights as everybody else. Though these nearly 30 years have brought some immense changes for the better, room for improvement remains.
The ADA helps to even the playing field and provide an opportunity. PWD want to and are able to go places and do stuff! Yes, depending on the severity and disability of a person, minor or major accommodations have to be made at minor or sometimes major costs. However, do not let potential additional equipment/costs deter you. With those accommodations, PWD are just as capable, likely, and able to do as meagerly or remarkably as well as any other person out there. The ADA gives us a chance to put our work next to everybody else.
A majority of the changes following the passage of the ADA have not only been beneficial for PWD but people in general as well. Have you ever used a curb cut on the sidewalks, a ramp rather than stairs, entered through an automatic door, noticed braille on a sign, or benefited by closed captioning watching a show (maybe at home or a restaurant)? Aside from making life easier for everybody, notice what else those changes have done? They made it possible for more people to participate, be included, and get involved.
Simple changes like working from home, virtual meetings, flexible work schedules, or stores and restaurants offering curbside service are just a few examples of accommodations that are commonly implemented now and have been monumental in a businesses’ ability to function. Pre-Covid-19, there were many documented instances where PWD were denied these exact same reasonable accommodations forcing them to move on and go without or try to file lawsuits citing ADA violations.
A common expression in the disability rights movement still applies here: “Nothing about us without us”. PWD asked to be included or when that didn’t work, publicly forced their way into various decision making groups and, as a result, have become common fixtures at local, regional, and national meetings. As alluded to earlier, some vast improvements within sections of the ADA have been made thanks to PWD getting involved in the decision making process. These efforts have resulted in: transportation services with accessible vehicles, employers interviewing/hiring PWD and providing accommodations as needed, and alternate forms of communication and services for students with disabilities. These may not seem all that impactful now, yet they were/are clear signs to all community members they are valued and welcomed. To continue movement on these issues the whole community should always continue to be considered. When decisions are being made we should always ask ourselves who is at the table? Nothing about us, without us.
Accessibility will always be a hot topic among the disability community and it should be a priority for any entity. Accessibility goes beyond only physical access to buildings or services, it includes an ability to provide alternate materials like braille, image boards, or audio versions, alternate communication methods (languages, American Sign Language, tablets), and websites adapted to screen readers and images with alt text to describe photos are all forms of accessibility. The good news is these changes are not impossible to do or difficult to learn. They can be adjusted for after the fact. Meaning it is possible for a business by updating their old materials into accessible forms. While retrofitting physical spaces for accessibility may be more difficult and costly (especially with our older buildings throughout the Midwest), accessibility can easily and affordably be built into any new construction project. The only reason something isn’t built accessibly now is because the builder/designer chooses not to (cough cough: home builders! Even though ADA doesn’t apply to private residencies).
Over the last nearly 30 years with the ADA, PWD are doing better now than before and there has been a shift towards acknowledging the needs of PWD and their inclusion in society. The ADA should be celebrated for permanently establishing the civil rights of PWD and what it has been able to accomplish so far with its limited scope. Going forward, I ask that you make a conscious effort to seek out the “other” people and offer them a seat. Those that you don’t see at work, in your meetings, on TV, or out in the streets. There’s a reason you aren’t seeing them. There is still a stigma attached to disability. People with disabilities are different, and being different makes others uncomfortable. When Covid-19 is all said and done, please remember what it felt like to be isolated at home, unemployed, unable to physically visit friends and family, or to get services out in the community. Even with the ADA, PWD didn’t need a pandemic to encounter those scenarios because they are frequently a part of life.
Despite the ADA’s impressive impact on society, the five titles within the Americans with Disabilities Act aren’t all encompassing. The ADA has limitations and strict guidelines. Since its inception and to this day, efforts have been aimed at undoing the strength of the ADA in courts, effectively trying to void the hard fought civil rights of PWD. Here’s to 30 years of battling for inclusion with the help of the ADA and beyond! #awareness