Two Hopeful Signs for Americans with Disabilities

BY Judy Woodruff  March 15, 2012 at 2:39 PM EDT

As the mother of a son with disabilities, I try to keep an eye out for news that affects people in the large community of which he is a part. Today, I spotted two that can potentially spell positive news for the 30 million-plus Americans who have one or more forms of disability, and especially for those with the most serious limitations.

First, today is the day the U.S. Department of Justice has said government and private building owners must make sure there are no architectural barriers that would prevent people with disabilities from using — and enjoying — what they have to offer. There were revised federal guidelines adopted in 2010 that put a special focus on recreational facilities — standards that were not included in the original law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted almost 20 years earlier. These include gyms and fitness centers, swimming pools, bowling alleys, boating docks, amusement parks, and golf courses, both regular and miniature.

Mindful of all the hotels and motels affected by the law, today’s Salt Lake Tribune quotes an official with the American Hotel & Lodging Association, based in Washington, D.C.: “It’s not enough just to say, ‘I can’t afford it.’” The Tribune article describes the move by Utah officials to install wheelchair lifts in all the county swimming pools. Even so, USA Today reports that a number of hotels around the country are considering closing their pools and whirlpools, because they don’t yet include lifts.

Two Republican Senators, Lindsay Graham and Jim DeMint, both of South Carolina, have introduced a bill to prevent the U.S. Attorney General from enforcing any rule related to public pools. In fact, the hotel association has asked the Justice Department to delay implementation of the new rules, arguing they are vague. But so far, federal officials have not agreed to any changes. The Hill newspaper reports this week that the Justice Department has said that hotels must remove barriers to handicapped use in every pool they oversee if doing so is “readily achievable,” and take minimum steps if it is not.

The other news item has to do with new technology increasing the quality of life for people with disabilities. Bloomberg News reports on a 26-year-old Minnesota woman, Emma Edwards, who suffered a traumatic brain injury a decade ago, leaving her unable to talk, walk, or move her arms freely. But with an iPad, and a few software applications, she is now able to write emails and even do some sketching. The tablet computer replaces what she had been using: a 9-pound “$15,000 communication device … that tracks eye movement on a special grid corresponding to the alphabet.” Instead of relying on the cumbersome machine, “the iPad, along with several other consumer-driven apps, has reopened the world to her.”

This comes just one week after about 5,000 people attended the 27th annual International Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference in San Diego, where Google, Microsoft and other companies showed off the latest devices they’re creating, while conversations sparked around making social media truly accessible. What is clear, both from the story about Ms. Edwards and what it calls “a grassroots movement sweeping the $1 billion-a-year assistive-technology market,” and from other recent reports about technology that is newly available to people with disabilities, is that options are developing at a rate that was unheard of just a few years ago.