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25 years on, celebrating ADA’s advances while facing stubborn barriers

Twenty-five years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, prohibiting employment discrimination and guaranteeing access to public places and transportation. For a look at the progress and the challenges, Judy Woodruff talks to U.S. Special Advisor for International Disability Rights Judith Heumann, Tatyana McFadden, a Paralympic wheelchair racer, and Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    This week marks the 25th anniversary of a milestone civil rights bill signed into law, the ADA, or Americans with Disabilities Act. Its legacy continues to grow, yet formidable problems and discrepancies remain a daily part of life in the U.S.

    We explore those challenges, but, first, a bit of background on some of the accomplishments.

  • FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH:

    With today's signing of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright now era of equality, independence, and freedom.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    On a clear summer day 25 years ago, President George H.W. Bush signed into law equal protection of civil rights for Americans with a disability. The landmark bill prohibits employment discrimination and guarantees access to public places, restaurants, hotels and, most critically, to public transportation.

    Over 56 million Americans have some type of disability, over half of them a severe disability. The law has succeeded in many ways. It's put ramps on public buildings, created access to health care, fought housing discrimination, and opened important school doors.

    Fred Weiner is an assistant vice president at Gallaudet University, for a long time, the only college for students who are hearing-impaired. He said access to education has greatly expanded since the ADA.

  • FRED WEINER, Gallaudet University (through interpreter):

    People who are deaf and hard of hearing have more places to go. They can select a public college or a private college. They can pick a variety of educational settings. And so it's not just access to the classroom, but it's learning in a broader sense. It's access to cultural institutions like museums, cultural events that's really part of the fabric of learning.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But more education has not always translated into employment opportunities; 41 percent of those with a disability and of working age are employed, compared to 79 percent of those without a disability. Even those who are employed earn on average 37 percent less than their able-bodied counterparts.

    President Obama made note of the disparity at a celebration for the act earlier this week.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    In some cases, it's a lack of access to skills training. In some cases, it's an employer that can't see all that these candidates for a job have to offer. Whatever the reason, we have got to do better. Our country cannot let all that incredible talent go to waste.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    While much work to enforce the law remains to be done, technological advancements over the past 25 years are creating opportunities where there once seemed no hope.

    Jason Barnes lost part of his arm during a work accident. He was a talented drummer and originally continued playing with a rudimentary prosthetic. After seeing videos of the Musical Cyborgs, robots that collaborate musically with humans, created by Gil Weinberg, a professor at Georgia Tech University, Jason reached out and Gil designed a robotic prosthesis for him.

    The arm can drum at 20 hits per second, a speed not humanly possible.

  • JASON BARNES, Drummer:

    So there is one stick that is controlled via EMG. So there's muscles in my arm, essentially there are sensors that pick up the residual muscle signals. And so I can control it accordingly, depending on how you have it routed through a computer. And then the second stick is actually kind of a mind of its own. It runs off its own computer.

    And it will actually listen to the music and complement it how it thinks it should be complemented with its own rhythms.

  • GIL WEINBERG, Georgia Tech University:

    He's the envy of all kinds of heavy metal drummers that would love to have his speed right now.

    Technology for leg and arm amputees can create all kinds of things, such as running, if you're talking about legs, or drumming, if you're talking about arms, allow people with disabilities to really exceed and put the line in the sand for us to try and exploit that for ourselves.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And beyond technological advancements, Fred Weiner hopes, 25 years from now, we will have achieved much more

  • FRED WEINER:

    Hopefully, we will be talking about the president of the United States who's disabled and that nobody thinks anything of it.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We hear more on all this from three people who have long been involved in the effort to end discrimination.

    Judith Heumann is a longtime activist for those with disabilities and now special adviser for international disability rights at the State Department. Tatyana McFadden is a wheelchair racer who has medaled in each of the last three Paralympics, including winning three gold medals in the 2012 Paralympics in London. And U.S. Representative Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, he is, among his other duties, co-chair of the bipartisan Disabilities Caucus.

    And we welcome all three of you to the program.

    Tatyana, to you first. You were — the ADA was already the law of the land when you came to the United States at age of 6 from Russia. How has it made a difference in your life, do you think?

  • TATYANA MCFADDEN, Paralympic Wheelchair Racer:

    I really have to thank the people who came before me and who were — who made ADA possible. I have the right to an education. I graduated recently from the University of Illinois. I'm going to get my master's degree.

    But the most important, the fact that ADA took part, was when I was in high school. Coming back from Athens in 2004, I was a Paralympics medalist. And I was entering freshman year in high school. And all I wanted to do was be part of my high school track team. And they denied me the right to a uniform. They said I could run with my own kind and they wouldn't allow me to participate in high school sports.

    So, we took action and we filed a lawsuit with no money, and because of the ADA, it was law. And I have to really thank the ADA for that.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It made a huge difference for you.

    Judith Heumann, what about you? How has it made a difference for you?

    JUDITH HEUMANN, U.S. Special Adviser for International Disability Rights: So, I'm 67 years old. And I have seen a dramatic change over the course of my life.

    I had polio in 1949, right after President Roosevelt had died. And when I was growing up, I was denied the right to go to school because I used a wheelchair, only had a teacher who came two-and-a-half-hours a week until I was 9 years old, and went to universities, but they were very inaccessible.

    But now I work at the State Department, as you said, and I go to work every day on an accessible bus. I take the train home frequently. I fly on airplanes. I can drive — get on trains to get up the East Coast, and travel around the world, where conditions are not as good as here.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Congressman Langevin, you wrote an article this week in which, among other things, you said, for all the accomplishments of the ADA, its promise has not been fulfilled. What did you mean by that?

    REP. JIM LANGEVIN (D), Rhode Island: Well, first of all, I want to say that the Americans with Disabilities Act has had a profound impact on my life.

    I was injured about 10 years before the ADA passed, so I really remember what the world was like before ADA was passed and after it was enacted. Clearly, it's brought down tremendous barriers and obstacles and has opened doors for people with disabilities.

    But there's still much more work to be done. It has also, by the way, changed the psychological barriers that existed before the ADA was passed, and it really is the civil rights law of our time. But we have more work to do in terms of providing real employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

    There are still too many people with disabilities that are unemployed. I think it's approximately 34 percent among the — of the people that have a disability that have jobs. There's so much more work to do there. Transportation, making that truly accessible and easy to access is still — we need more work to do. Accessible transportation is not abundant, where it needs to be for people with disabilities.

    Affordable housing, accessible housing is another area where we have more work to do.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Let me turn to you about — on that, Tatyana. How do you see that, I mean, the psychological barriers out there, whether it's to employment, whether it's education? What do you see?

  • TATYANA MCFADDEN:

    I do believe that there is more work to be done.

    And I believe that it's my generation's turn to take over and to help and to say that people with disabilities should be employed. And we see the change coming, but I see that the change will be definitely in the future.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    What do you think is holding it back? I noticed the president — we didn't include this as part of the clip, but the president said sometimes it may be discouragement on the part of those with disabilities. Maybe they're not going after some of the jobs they could get.

  • TATYANA MCFADDEN:

    I think it's just education and talking about disability.

    I mean, disability is part of who I am. And it's just sharing that with the public and saying, I can do this, this is what I can do, and this is how I may do it, and it's just showing the public that.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Judy Heumann, what about this whole question of employment, lack of employment for people who are able-bodied? The president said we — so much talent we don't want to waste.

  • JUDITH HEUMANN:

    Well, I think it's true in part that some disabled people have stopped looking for jobs because they have had bad experiences, not being able to get them.

    But I also think there are many disabled people that are looking for jobs and that in some cases they are not being given equal opportunities. So I think, right now, the president has an initiative to get the federal government to be employing more disabled people. And now we have about 13 percent of the federal work force are people with disabilities.

    And I think, quite frankly, having disabled people in the work force also, we reach out to other people that we feel are qualified to get them to apply for jobs. So, at the State Department, we have definitely seen an increase in the number of individuals who have disabilities and the numbered of disabled individuals who are willing to disclose that they have them.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Congressman Langevin, what is stopping, do you think, employers sometimes from hiring someone with a disability?

  • REP. JIM LANGEVIN:

    Well, again, I go back to what I said earlier, is that there may be a bit of fear about what it means to have a reasonable accommodation? What does that mean?

    And there are some people that — some employers, I'm sure, that think that there are extraordinary measures that have to be gone to, to employ somebody with a disability. And that's not what the ADA requires at all. Reasonable accommodations is what it's all about.

    I would also say that there is the part that perhaps people with disabilities — there's a fear factor of not wanting to go out to find a job because they're afraid that they're going to lose their long-term or short-term community supports, things like PCAs and such. There have been private — there has been private…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    PCA, meaning?

  • REP. JIM LANGEVIN:

    Personal care attendants.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Ah.

  • REP. JIM LANGEVIN:

    Also fear of losing the health care.

    Now, there has been progress made on things like the Ticket to Work program and other programs that help to ensure that people won't lose things like their health care and other supports. So, educating people with disabilities that there are opportunities out there, but still more work to be done in that area, that there are things that other than just the financial income that someone may lose by going off of SSI or SSDI, that there are other programs…

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    This is Social Security benefits you're referring to.

  • REP. JIM LANGEVIN:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Let me come to, Tatyana, to all three of you here at the end on, what do you want people watching and listening to this to know? People who are able-bodied, who don't have a disability, what should they know about those with disabilities and what you really want?

  • TATYANA MCFADDEN:

    That if you employ somebody someone with a disability, I think you're creating a better and you're creating a more equal world.

    And it's just about showing the possibilities of what can be done. And we live in America, where that can be done. And so that's what I'm hoping to teach people and to show people, that this is all possible, and just to keep moving forward.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And Judy Heumann, what about just attitudes and the way people look at those with disabilities?

  • JUDITH HEUMANN:

    I think the ADA is only 25 years old. And in the United States, we have hundreds of years where disabled people have not been allowed to be integrated into our societies.

    So, things are not going to change overnight. I think groups like the U.S. Business Leadership Network and National Organization on Disability that are working with many employers who say they are interested in employing more disabled people, and I think there's going to be some data coming out in the near future that about how some companies are doing to really advance employment.

    And, ultimately, what we want is that society sees us just as a part of society. That's really it, that they see us as valued members of our communities.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Congressman Langevin, just quickly, what do you want people to know about those with disabilities?

  • REP. JIM LANGEVIN:

    That people with disabilities are tremendous employees.

    They have incredible gifts and talents to contribute to a company, a place of business, to the world in general. And I have often said that I still believe that people with disabilities are one of this nation's greatest untapped resources that we need to tap into.

    And I know we can make it a — certainly a better world and, again, continue to realize the full promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act. That is my goal as a member of Congress, who I am the first quadriplegic elected to Congress. And I work every day to try to, with my colleagues, bring down those barriers, open up doors, and create those job opportunities.

    And I know we have great support here on the Hill. And we just need to get the word out and continue to realize the promise of ADA

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Congressman Jim Langevin, Judy Heumann from the State Department, Tatyana McFadden, Paralympics gold medalist, we thank you, all three.

  • TATYANA MCFADDEN:

    Thank you.

  • REP. JIM LANGEVIN:

    Thank you.

  • JUDITH HEUMANN:

    Thank you.

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