The ADA at 20: Half-Empty, Half-Full or Both?

Illustration by Doug Davis

I don’t remember where I was when the ADA was signed, but I do remember the first time I was congratulated about it.

December 1990 — the office Christmas party at my first job out of college. The type of scene that the film Office Space would satirize a few years later: stale store-bought cookies, nonalcoholic punch served at room temperature in paper cups, and long-winded holiday greetings from the CEO and his various underlings. The economy sucked, we were on the brink of war with Iraq, and most people at the company were being kept awake by fears that they would be caught up in the next round of layoffs. Morale was low.

During this party I found myself sitting next to one of the department managers. In my year-and-a-half at the company, I had spoken to this guy maybe three times, but now he was coming on as if we were best buds from childhood.

“So have you heard about this ADA thing?” he asked. “You know, the America Disability Act?”

I adopted my best cynical twentysomething tone of voice. “Yeah, I’ve heard about it.”

“It’s gonna be great for you people from now on.” He leaned toward me. I braced myself for a pat on the head, but he went for the shoulder instead. “Just wait and see. It’s gonna be great.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

In truth, though, the signing of the ADA had me bursting with crip pride. I’d been following the disability rights movement off and on since junior high, but until recently had been preoccupied with school, work, dating and all the other issues of young adulthood. It took the ADA for me to finally recognize the disability community as a “people” — and now, after decades of ignorance and discrimination, my people had at last achieved equality by law.

The Significance Sinks In
Looking back at the last 20 years, both idealists and cynics in the disability community can find ways to confirm their views. Since its signing, the ADA has brought about tremendous change in the way American society deals with disability. Some of these changes are direct results of the law itself — physical access is more common, and people with disabilities have a powerful weapon against discrimination that they are wielding more and more often — while other changes are indirect, in the form of evolving social attitudes and greater integration. At the same time, in other ways we have clearly not progressed far enough, and in some areas — such as our high rate of unemployment — our community has even gone backward.

Laura Overstreet became disabled the year the ADA passed.

Laura Overstreet became disabled the year the ADA passed.

But how does the average person with a disability — the “crip on the street,” if you will — evaluate the impact of the ADA? That depends on many factors — including whether they were born with a disability or disabled later in life, and whether they came of age before or after the ADA’s passage.

Suzanne Stolz, 35, a graduate student in San Diego with muscular dystrophy, was in high school when the ADA became law in 1990. “At the time I wasn’t all that into it — I didn’t realize what it would mean for me,” she says.  Growing up pre-ADA, she recalls encountering a lot of inaccessible public facilities, but not being terribly fazed by them. “Because I was a kid, I was easily carried places, so those instances don’t stick with me.”

That attitude changed, however, as Stolz became an adult — and as the significance of the ADA as a civil rights law began to sink in. “I feel an expectation to be included more than I did before,” she says. “When I go places and something is not accessible, I no longer feel like it’s a problem with me — it’s society’s problem.” The ADA, she says, “has changed my thinking, and I imagine it’s changed a lot of other people’s thinking, too.”

Carolyn Copple Hitt, 56, of Shreveport, La., became disabled by transverse myelitis in 2003. While she remembers the ADA’s passage from news reports, as someone not yet disabled, the news did not make much of an impression on her. In the last seven years, however, “I’ve felt deep gratitude countless times for the public accessibility accommodations made possible by ADA compliance,” she says. Nevertheless, “there’s still room to improve acceptance, respect and structural modifications to make it possible for those living with a disability to remain as productive as possible.”

Laura Overstreet, 30, of Marietta, Ga., also has TM — “My onset was two months and four days after the ADA was passed,” she says. A sociologist who speaks frequently at colleges and writes about disability at her blog, www.leftybydefault.com, Overstreet notes that, post-ADA, disabled people are more visible than before.  “Speaking at different schools, I see more and more wheelchair users,” she says. Moreover, society seems much more accustomed to seeing people with disabilities as part of the everyday landscape. “I don’t get stared at as often. I don’t get questioned as often. I think people are more used to seeing wheelchair users out in public.”

The Expectations Game
Yet despite greater access, higher visibility and improving social attitudes, in many respects the disability community has not progressed very far in 20 years, and in one glaring area — employment — has even slipped backward. The jobless rate for people with disabilities, already around 67 percent in the 1990s, is now closer to 75 percent. In this case the glass isn’t just half-empty, it’s two-thirds empty.

“The largest problem for us remains the unemployment crisis,” says Alex Montoya, 36 and a triple amputee. Montoya worked for several years at a center for independent living before landing his current position as head of Latino relations for the San Diego Padres baseball organization. “It’s a crisis because you have talented minds out there who are not working. You have those who are still very much hampered by Social Security work disincentives.”  Others, lacking transportation, discouraged by persistent discrimination, or without community-living supports, are out of the workforce altogether. “I think there is an innate drive in all of us to want to work, and yet you have those who are kept from working, or who choose not to, for whatever reason.”

Alex Montoya worked at an independent living center before landing his job as head of Latino relations for the San Diego Padres.

Alex Montoya worked at an independent living center before landing his job as head of Latino relations for the San Diego Padres.

Even in areas where the ADA has effected genuine change, like access to public facilities, the benefits can vary from one location to the next. Randy Alexander, 41, an ADAPT activist and community organizer in Memphis, Tenn., laments the sad state of sidewalks and curb cuts in his community. “I live in a neighborhood that is incredible,” he says. “There are tons of locally owned restaurants and businesses, grocery stores, movie theaters, doctor’s offices — everything within a mile. But unfortunately, to get to them I have to take my wheelchair out in the street all the time.”  Like many cities these days with limited funds, Memphis tends to neglect its accessible infrastructure. “They look at access only after they’ve been sued about it,” Alexander says. “A lot of cities still fight the idea of full inclusion.”

On the other hand, he says, travel around the country has become much more accessible since he became a C6-7 quad in a 1992 car accident. “I travel a lot, both personally and for work, and it is so much easier now.” And while public sidewalks may pose problems for him getting places, when he gets there, he has a better time of it. “Back in ’94 or ’95, you’d go to the theater, you wouldn’t know if you could get in — there was constant wondering if you could get in places. Now you run into an obstacle, and it’s that much more maddening, because your expectations have changed.”

The “expectations game” is common for every civil rights advance this country has made: once society evolves to a certain level, demands rise for it to evolve further. As the ADA and other legislation has become a fact of life, the debate over disability has shifted from “Should people with disabilities be protected by law against discrimination?” to “How do we ensure that people with disabilities are fully integrated?”

Stolz, a former coordinator of a mentoring program for high school students with disabilities, says, “I really believe that policies help shape the way people think.” While it may seem as if social change doesn’t happen quickly enough — “Between 1990 and now, there’s been a real change in people’s attitudes.” Young people with disabilities, coming of age fully in a post-ADA world, have a much greater sense of their own worth and expect equality and inclusion. “If they go somewhere and it’s not accessible, they’re much more likely to say, ‘Hey, this is BS,’ than we would have as kids. I think that changes who they become.”

Montoya agrees. “Today’s kids are probably benefiting more from the ADA than any of us, and the kids after them certainly will even more.”

ADA as Community Builder
For that to happen, however — for equality and inclusion of people with disabilities to progress through future generations — the disability community needs to learn how to become a true community, one that nurtures the growth of its members and supports them in their struggles.

The story of any social movement, at the end, comes down to individuals fighting for their rights — be they African-American, women, gay/lesbian or disabled. To Stolz, however, “other communities are more closely connected than people with disabilities — it’s easier for them to have solidarity.” Outside of the rare group action, such as those by ADAPT, the struggle for disability rights remains very individual, personal and lonely. “We are still very disconnected,” Stolz says.

Alexander, the activist and community organizer, believes the ADA should be used as a tool for building the sort of community that can expand disability rights even further. “The disability rights movement is really in its infancy compared with other civil rights movements,” he says. “Now that we can get out in the community, we should be working to find each other. We should be using the ADA to reach out and find more of our disabled brothers and sisters, so that we can work towards changing the culture.” Or, as Overstreet puts it, “With increased accessibility comes increased visibility, and in turn you get more social progress.”

For Montoya, simply seeing more people with disabilities out and about makes him feel more connected to the larger community. “I remember going to professional events in the mid- to late ’90s and being the only person with a disability in the room. There’s always going to be circumstances where that still happens, but it happens less and less.

“It’s probably taken longer than most advocates would like, but we’re becoming more of a part of everyday life,” Montoya says. “Eventually some of us are going to be in positions of power — that’s how real change is going to be effected.”

Although people with disabilities remember the signing of the ADA as a huge watershed event, the truth was that coverage of it in nondisabled media was relatively light — certainly light in comparison to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to which disability advocates often compared it. The comparison is an apt one, however. Like the Civil Rights Act, the ADA has taken on a symbolic value far broader than the specific provisions of the law itself — it symbolizes not just the nitty-gritty of physical access to facilities or accommodations in the workplace, but the entire vision of inclusion for people with disabilities in the life of our society. A vision not yet attained, but one to be constantly striven for.


ADA Psychology
By Tim Gilmer

It isn’t just a guide to accessibility, a law, a set of legal requirements or an historic civil-rights document, as important as these may be. More than anything, the Americans with Disabilities Act has changed the landscape of the American psyche. People now know they can be held accountable for discrimination against people with disabilities. Most importantly, awareness of the law has given those of us who live with serious disabling conditions a psychological boost, an expectation that our lives really do count.

And that expectation is everything.

In many cultures people with disabilities are not expected to contribute anything. They are expected to stay on the sidelines, remain docile and compliant while the movers and shakers of the world have their way. Truthfully, even in the United States, plenty of people — and businesses — still hold to this patronizing attitude.

But now that the ADA has been around for 20 years, it is gradually transforming the way people think about disability. And each one of us has a role to play in the transformation. The law is the law, and rather than wait for government programs or the Department of Justice to force compliance, it is up to us to assert ourselves and claim our rights.

The ADA gives us the right to bring compliance lawsuits as individuals, but many of us are fearful of making enemies. Still, there are dignified ways to assert our wills that can bring respect and, eventually, compliance.

Personal contact is a good place to start, but polite conversations, phone calls and e-mails bring scant results. Eventually a well-written letter stating your request for a reasonable accommodation is usually needed to force action. It is best to send a certified letter, so it will be taken seriously.

If there is no response, the next step is to engage an attorney who is familiar with the ADA. The attorney can write a follow-up letter for openers, then initiate a lawsuit if needed. Many cities have federally funded nonprofit legal services that advocate for people with disabilities. Their services are free. All you have to do is ask. This approach usually succeeds, but changing the world one business at a time is a slow process.

A group of independent living advocates in Pennsylvania tackled noncompliance in an entire neighborhood in 1999. NM’s Josie Byzek was instrumental in orchestrating Harrisburg’s “Midtown Sweep,” a carefully planned strategy that involved surveying local businesses, sending ADA warning letters (which also contained helpful information) and finally, initiating lawsuits with the help of a nonprofit disability law center. One of the keys to success was the inclusion of the press. Clear position papers were supplied to local newspapers at strategic times. Another important element: plaintiffs lived in the neighborhood. They had every right to expect compliance, especially in their own backyard.

You can read more details about the success of the Midtown Sweep at www.bcm.edu/ilru/html/publications/readings_in_IL/midtown.html.

Nationally, ADAPT has become increasingly successful in securing laws and rights for people with disabilities. As a national advocacy group, ADAPT has matured. As a result, resentment over confrontation is giving way to respect for our rights.

Without the ADA, would any of this have happened?

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