20 Years After the ADA, Is Life Better for Those With Disabilities?

The question to ask on the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, is whether life today is any better for those with disabilities? The first-ever civil rights law for people with physical and cognitive challenges, signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, it prohibited employment discrimination, and imposed requirements on access to public facilities, transportation and telecommunications.

It was intended to bring about sweeping change, and in many ways it has done that. For example, more cities and towns have street corners with curb cuts, making it possible for people who use wheelchairs to cross the street and use sidewalks. There are more public buses and trains with automatic lifts, and subway systems with elevators, as well as public buildings with automatic doors.

Indeed, progress across the United States has been visible. Leah Katz Hernandez, 23, who is hearing impaired, tells the NewsHour the changes the ADA brought about have had unintended benefits: “People biking, people with baby strollers and skateboarders,” all take advantage of structural changes like curb cuts. Hernandez adds that the ADA has helped deaf children in public schools get interpreters, allowing them to get a better education.

And yet, according to Andy Imparato, the president of the American Association for People with Disabilities, there remain large obstacles when it comes to finding a job. He told NewsHour reporter Jenny Marder that despite the ADA, 70 percent of people with significant disabilities are not working today, the same as twenty years ago. For people with any type of disabilities, about half are not working, also the same as twenty years ago.

The official unemployment figure for people with disabilities is just over 14 percent, but that counts only individuals who are actively looking for work. Many have given up, or been reluctant to begin searching in the first place. Shelley Papenfuse, with the Ability Center of Greater Toledo, told the Toledo Blade: “We continue to be marginalized in the work force … if you don’t have housing and accessible transportation, you’re not going to be able to keep a job.”

A Chamber of Commerce official in Toledo, however, told the newspaper that “more recent interpretations of the [ADA] are getting farther and farther out on the edge and that its requirements are becoming onerous.” Carol Van Sickle, vice president of public affairs for the Toledo Area Chamber of Commerce, was quoted as saying “anything that takes away from getting your product out the door as a small or medium sized business is tough, particularly now, when we’re fighting like the dickens to keep our businesses alive.”

That could spell bumps in the road ahead for the Obama administration, which last week proposed trying to improve access for people with disabilities to websites for hotels, retail stores and other public sites. Mainly intended to help the deaf and the blind, the proposals – which include improving equipment like ATM cash machines and communications with 911 emergency call centers — are subject to public comment, and a public hearing. The Department of Justice, which is making the recommendations, also said it was considering requiring movie theaters to show movies with closed captions and video descriptions at least 50 percent of the time.

Whatever the broader reaction, among young Americans with disabilities, like Katz-Hernandez, who is hearing impaired, the need for Internet and video accessibility is an imperative. She wrote to NewsHour reporter Mike Melia in an e-mail, “I can’t go watch movies in theaters any time I want to. I have to wait until that specific time in the month when it’s captioned and even so, I can’t watch just any movies.” But even more important to her: “Technology innovation is extremely important to the disability community in terms of improving our lives. The future is in the Internet and it must be accessible, no question about it.”

As the mother of a 28-year-old son who uses a wheelchair, and has visual, speech and memory impairments, I have seen first hand the roadblocks that remain for individuals with disabilities. For all the advances that came with the ADA, we are reminded of what is yet to be every time we encounter a restaurant, hotel or shop that is not accessible, or a classroom or airplane with stairs and no ramp. For my son, who wants to be a fully participating member of society, and who privately struggles to understand that he can’t easily visit most private homes, it is particularly tough to know some public places are still not welcoming, and that many places of employment are not open to someone like him. In the words of Jeffrey Hunt, “I just want to work at a good job, and to be able to go where everyone else can go.”

Watch Monday’s NewsHour for more perspectives on the ADA anniversary.

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