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20 Years After ADA, Accessibility Remains ‘An Evolutionary Process’

July 26, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Twenty years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted, the effects can be seen across the country in curb cuts, lifts on buses and so on. Judy Woodruff speaks with Andrew Imparato of the American Association of People with Disabilities and Amelia Wallrich, a student who says she continues to face discrimination.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: looking at what the Americans With Disabilities Act changed 20 years ago, and the challenges that remain today.

LINDA ANDRE, Americans With Disabilities Act Advocate: This is where we blocked the buses.

On July 5, 1978, Linda Andre rolled her wheelchair off the curb and on to Denver’s busy West Colfax Avenue, and sat there in the heat for two days. She was one of 19 protesters who blocked downtown bus traffic to call attention to dismal access to public transit for the city’s disabled. It was part of a long buildup of frustration and protests among people with disabilities who sought better access to travel, jobs and activities.

LINDA ANDRE: We did sit-ins in Washington. We did everything we could, locally, on a local level, with our legislature and the senators and — to get it passed. We just wouldn’t be quiet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Twenty years ago today, things began to change when President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act into law.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, Former President of the United States: You have called for new sources of workers. Well, many of our fellow citizens with disabilities are unemployed. They want to work, and they can work. And this is a tremendous pool of people.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: That landmark law established access as a basic right and made it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities. It led to more ramps and lifts to improve entrance to public buses and buildings, curb cuts at intersection and braille on signs.

DAWN RUSSELL, Denver ADAPT: Oh, look at this. This is Lonnie (ph).

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dawn Russell works for the group Denver ADAPT, where office walls chronicle 35 years of the disability movement.

DAWN RUSSELL, Denver ADAPT: The ADA didn’t come easy, and it didn’t come because politicians thought it was a good idea. It came because people with disabilities fought and said, we’re going to be equal. We’re going to have access.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fifty-one million Americans — that’s 18 percent of the population — have at least one disability. Half of that group have severe disabilities. And nearly 11 million need personal assistants with daily living skills.

But advocates for the disabled say much work remains to be done. More than half of Americans with disabilities are unemployed. Many live unwillingly in nursing homes, because they can’t afford needed aid.

Today and over the weekend, the law’s anniversary and its accomplishment was celebrated around the country. In Denver, people turned out at the city’s Botanic Garden on Saturday for socializing, speeches and performers. In Boise, Idaho, today, hundreds circled the capitol building.

The date was noted in the nation’s capital as well. On Capitol Hill, Democrat James Langevin of Rhode Island, who was paralyzed in a shooting accident 30 years ago, became the first lawmaker to preside over the House of Representatives in a wheelchair.

For more now on the impact of the ADA and what more could still be done, we are joined by Andrew Imparato. He’s president and CEO of the American Association of People With Disabilities, a nonprofit advocacy organization for the disability community. And Amelia Wallrich, a student at the University of Illinois, this summer, she is interning at the office of Senator Dick Durbin.

Thank you both for being with us.

Andy Imparato, how much difference has the ADA made?

ANDREW IMPARATO, president & CEO, American Association of People With Disabilities: You know, I think it’s been 20 years, and the difference has been gradual. So, it is hard, I think, sometimes to remember how inaccessible this country was 20 years ago.

One of my favorite examples is buses that people take to get around cities. And it was appropriate that you showed ADAPT, because that was the group that really lead that effort. When the ADA passed…

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Denver.

ANDREW IMPARATO: Absolutely, in Denver.

When the ADA passed, less than 5 percent of buses were accessible for people in wheelchairs. Today, over 95 percent are accessible. That happened in 20 years. And that’s just one of many examples where the ADA said, when you are doing something new, you need to build in accessibility. And it’s been an evolutionary process, but our country is much more accessible today than it was 20 years ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it has changed the lives of people with disabilities?

ANDREW IMPARATO: It’s changed the lives of people. You know, if you are a parent pushing a stroller, if you are pulling a roller bag behind you, if you are a delivery person delivering something, you are using all of those features that are there because of the ADA.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amelia Wallrich, you are a young woman in college. How has it changed your life? And you use a wheelchair, a scooter. How has it changed your life? What have you seen?

AMELIA WALLRICH, student, University of Illinois: Growing up, I grew up in a very conservative community, where disability wasn’t embraced as it has been in more recent years, as I have gotten to college.

So, the thing for me has really been about pride in the disability community and pride in my disability experience, and noticing that it isn’t something I have to compensate for. It’s a unique perspective that adds to the human experience.

And so, for me, joining the disability community and embracing it has really been about pride and the way that the ADA breaks down barriers, so that I can embrace that pride.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andy Imparato, how do you see a change for the younger generation and those older Americans?

ANDREW IMPARATO: Well, I love that we get to do a congressional internship program and an I.T. internship program every summer where I have 18 new college students with disabilities every summer who come to Washington. Amelia is in the program this summer.

And, every year, they impress me with how high their expectations are for themselves, how broad their visions are for what they can hope to achieve personally and professionally, how much they learn from each other and go to bat for each other over the course of the summer.

So, to me, it just gets me excited. I think we do have a generation coming through college right now that has very high expectations for themselves and will push even more rapid changes moving forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amelia, what do you see as the challenges out there? I mean, you are a college student. And I understand you are interested in being a lawyer. You have been looking into law school entrance exams.

AMELIA WALLRICH: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Talk about that.

AMELIA WALLRICH: The biggest challenges are getting people to recognize that the ADA and disability access isn’t just an issue for the disability community. It’s a human rights issue. And, therefore, we need to be joined by the able-bodied community.

As a disabled person, it shouldn’t just be me fighting. It should be my family and my friends recognizing that, because I am discriminated against, that they are as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how would you — and, for example, in trying to take the law school entrance exam, the LSAT, what have you faced?

AMELIA WALLRICH: Yes. I have had a set of accommodations I have used my entire educational career that is backed up and supported by doctors and disability specialists.

But the LSAT commission feels that they know better, that they know my disability better than I do that I have experienced for 21 years. And they have decided to deny me accommodations.

This puts a huge roadblock in the future that I have planned, that I have expected, that I have worked for, for the last 21 years. And so it needs to be about education, that — the fact that I know my disability experience, and that my doctor knows my disability experience. And, therefore, I should be allowed the accommodations and the equal opportunity to pursue my future that I have been planning out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andy Imparato, does the ADA give — is that a tool for someone like Amelia, who is interested in going to law school, becoming a lawyer?

ANDREW IMPARATO: Absolutely. The ADA is a federal civil rights law. So, there are a lot of entities that may prefer not to comply with the ADA, but it’s not an option. It’s a law for the whole country.

I think one of our challenges, as we celebrate 20 years, is that there are still institutions in this country that are not embracing their responsibilities under the ADA. And you would think that an organization that promotes justice and access to justice would be a model, but, in my experience, it’s somewhat unpredictable which groups are going to embrace their responsibilities and which aren’t.

AAPD has had a great experience working with Wal-Mart recently, but I know a lot of folks would say, they wouldn’t expect leadership from Wal-Mart. They would expect leadership from the bar. But, sometimes, the bar, you know, erects unnecessary barriers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Andy Imparato, talk about the employment barriers out there. I mean, we cited these just stunning statistics earlier. Over 50 percent of people with disabilities can’t find a job.

ANDREW IMPARATO: That’s right. And that number has been relatively flat for the last 20 years. And I know Senator Harkin, who is a big champion for the ADA, is concerned about that. I know Senator Dole, another champion, is concerned.

I think, you know, one of the reasons why we are not seeing more movement in employment is I think, as a country, we still don’t really expect people with disabilities to work. I will give you a recent example. During health care reform, they were debating a provision in the bill that made it into the final bill that would enable people to keep their personal care attendant services and work at the same time.

And a senator said in a close-door meeting, well, people with disabilities don’t work, do they?

And this just happened. So, I really feel like we still have some work to do. And that’s why we’re excited that President Obama is releasing a PSA today that’s going to air all over the country, both on television and radio, because I think we need that kind of leadership to help educate people about what the expectations are that people with disabilities have for ourselves and why it good for the country when we are working and we are participating fully.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amelia Wallrich, what are concrete things you want to see happen in your lifetime that aren’t out there right now?

AMELIA WALLRICH: I want to see more compliance, a lot more universal design. I see a lot of businesses moving into old buildings or constructing new buildings, even, without paying attention to how it can be accessible until the final decisions of the plans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because, right now, there are still buildings that you can’t get into.

AMELIA WALLRICH: Yes.

Like, I mean, I go to U-of-I, University of Illinois, in Urbana-Champaign. We’re one of the most accessible campuses. But, when I go to town, there’s only select bars or restaurants or various things I can go to. And that affects my social life, as a college student, which is a big part of the college experience.

And even building new school buildings, they kind of think about it last minute, instead of thinking about it from the beginning, thinking, how can we make sure that this building is accessible for all? How can we make sure that this space works for everyone?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andy Imparato, translate that. Put that on the national scale. What is it like across the country in terms of accessibility today?

ANDREW IMPARATO: Well, keep in mind that the ADA required more from new construction or major renovations. So, in parts of the country that have had a lot of new construction, there’s a lot more accessibility. That tends to be urban areas that are doing well, that can afford to do that kind of development.

But there are still lots of parts of this country that have major barriers to accessibility. And I think that’s going to get better over time, but it is going to require leadership at the local level. For people to embrace the fact that we have an aging population and we make these improvements, we’re enabling everybody in our community to participate more fully.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Main challenge for you and the disability community going forward?

ANDREW IMPARATO: You know, I would say our biggest challenge is a political one. You know, we want elected officials at all levels to take us seriously as a voting bloc, as a political constituency.

And I feel like, when that happens, we will get farther along in terms of the vision of the Americans With Disabilities Act. We have had wonderful people, like former President Bush, who signed the law, Bob Dole, Tom Harkin, Ted Kennedy, Steny Hoyer, Tony Coelho, all these amazing leaders who did this because they knew it was the right thing to do.

We have yet to have somebody do it because they are afraid of us as a voting bloc.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you are saying that is one of your goals?

ANDREW IMPARATO: Absolutely.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, as I sit across from the table from you, I don’t feel afraid, but…

JUDY WOODRUFF: … but I understand what you are saying.

Andy Imparato, Amelia Wallrich, thank you very much, both of you.

AMELIA WALLRICH: Thank you.

ANDREW IMPARATO: Thank you.