Letter to the Editor: Full promise of 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act goes unmet

August 25th, 2015 9:38 am

Like many other people with disabilities, I attended segregated schools until being mainstreamed as a teenager and used driveways when curb cuts didn’t exist. I was among hundreds at the White House who watched President George H.W. Bush sign the Americans with Disabilities Act into law on July 26, 1990. He proclaimed the need to “let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

The ADA prohibits discrimination with respect to employment, state and local government, public accommodations and telecommunications. Improvements spurred by the law have become commonplace. Even casual observers see improved accessibility, such as curb cuts, ramps and audible pedestrian crossing signals.

This success, however, is tempered by regular challenges to the ADA’s mission. Public policy and misconceptions in some quarters often hinder efforts to achieve full integration.

An example occurred with Title I of the ADA. It requires businesses with 15 or more employees to provide equal opportunity to qualified individuals with disabilities. It prohibits discrimination in recruiting, hiring, promotions, training, pay and social activities. Court battles ensued and questions arose as to the definition of disability. The Supreme Court made several rulings that narrowed the law’s scope. As a result, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act in 2008. It restored legislative intent and proclaimed that the focus should be on whether discrimination occurred.

So why is unemployment among people with disabilities still high? Opportunities for advanced education and training are providing a new crop of qualified additions to our workforce. But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cites the unemployment rate of people with disabilities in May as 10.1 percent and 5.1 percent for people without disabilities. Although this reflects a slight improvement from 2014, it’s clear that a collaborative effort is critical to get people working.

Little did we know in 1990 that, nearly a decade later, the law’s language would enable a myriad of people to receive home and community based-services. Two women with disabilities from Georgia lived in an institution and both received Medicaid. They filed a lawsuit in order to live in their own homes, arguing that institutional care was unnecessary and violated the ADA’s Title II clause. Georgia courts agreed, but the decision was appealed and heard by the Supreme Court. Ultimately, they were victorious in a landmark ruling known as the Olmstead decision. The justices ruled that states must adhere to the spirit and intent of the ADA by shifting some Medicaid funding from nursing home and institutions to in-home programs.

The decision firmly declared institutionalization equals discrimination. It forced states to create Medicaid waiver programs. But 25 years later, legislators and policy makers still don’t get it. Many states have failed to rebalance long-term-care spending for those with low incomes. They perpetuate the institutional bias by spending more Medicaid dollars on nursing homes than programs that give us what we need – the ability to live at home.

Title III covers public accommodations, such as stores, restaurants, theaters, medical offices and many other businesses. Owners must take a proactive approach by removing existing barriers when it can be done without much difficulty or expense. Some businesses still balk at the idea by countering: “Why do we need a ramp? Nobody in a wheelchair comes here!”Smart entrepreneurs know accessibility means more customers.

Finally, the telecommunications provisions under Title IV have heralded significant equal access for people who are deaf.

More than 55 million Americans have disabilities. The ADA made an unprecedented promise. Like other civil rights mandates preceding it, that promise must be kept. The next generation should only encounter barriers in a history lesson.

Keith Williams

Advocacy and outreach coordinator

Northeast Pennsylvania Center for Independent Living