Hailed as the Bill of Rights for people with disabilities, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 has fulfilled much of its promise since its enactment 25 years ago. To realize the landmark federal law’s promise – ensuring citizens can be full participants in society throughout their lives – we must redouble our efforts to reduce the significant disparities that remain.
Lex Frieden; July 24, 2015
We have made great progress since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. Evidence of progress is all around us. Almost everywhere we go there are curb cuts, accessible parking spaces, widened doorways, accessible bathrooms, accessible buses, and more. There also are lifts at the sides of swimming pools, Braille navigation aids in buildings, modified hiring and employment procedures in workplaces, and sign language interpreters and CART at public events and meetings. And I could go on and on. All of these accommodations have been made since the ADA was passed by record majorities in Congress and signed by President George H. W. Bush, with 3,000 of us on the South Lawn of the White House, July 26, 1990.
As advocates for inclusion, as proponents of civil rights, and as Americans, we should all have a great sense of satisfaction. By any measure, we have moved a long way toward our goal of having a barrier-free environment and equal opportunity for people with disabilities.
In fact, to some extent, I believe the progress we have made may actually have exceeded our vision and expectations. I doubt anyone could have predicted how the Supreme Court would rule in a case like Olmstead v. L.C., which determined whether people with disabilities had the right to live in their communities instead of in institutions. In many respects, Olmstead epitomizes the broad impact of the law. By applying the edict of equal opportunity and inclusion as otherwise stated in the ADA, the Court reinforced the principal of full participation. For this to have happened, the law had to have been crafted well and clear in its intent.
Despite Olmstead, some of us have been sorely disappointed and frustrated by the failure of some courts to act on behalf of people with disabilities who have encountered discrimination. In that regard, the ADA Amendments Act is a very important codicil to the ADA.
My colleagues with the ADA Participation Action Consortium and I engaged a large-scale study to measure the impact of the ADA. Part of our effort has been to conduct a survey of more than 700 disability leaders from every state. Our data indicate substantial progress has been made in the areas of public accommodations, transportation and public awareness; however, the data also indicate individuals with disabilities have a long way to go to reduce manifest disparities in comparison to individuals without disabilities in employment, housing and healthcare. Thus, while we have made giant strides toward reaching our celebrated vision, it is evident that we must redouble our efforts to reduce significant, remaining disparities.
So after a quarter century of work to implement the ADA and reach our overarching goals, what do we do now?
I believe we should press on to attain our original objectives, but I believe also that we need to consider the changing society in which we live, particularly as it is a function of demographics. Our population is growing older rapidly. We need to ensure the environment can accommodate millions more people with disabilities than are present today.
In light of the already expressed, compelling demand by older adults to age in the community, we need to quickly and deliberately close the disparities gap, and we need to review and update the standards and guidelines we set for ADA compliance two-and-a-half decades ago. Of course, we need to continue to monitor technological, environmental and societal changes, and update the ADA as needed. And, perhaps most significantly, we need to concentrate on building a functional, cost-manageable, rationally organized, nationwide system of consumer-directed, home and community-based services and supports to facilitate independent living across the aging and disability spectrum.
We need to deliberately plan and prepare for what soon will become an overwhelming demand for home-based personal assistance. Already, many young people with disabilities are trying to live independently and to be full participants in their communities. Some face great obstacles as they seek accessible housing and reliable attendant care. Their search soon will be joined by 76 million older adults who wish to age in the community with their families and friends, and enjoy the freedom, personal space and amenities they worked so hard to earn.
Given what we know about the future, I have recalibrated my vision for America from a disability perspective.
My new vision is to have a nation where the promise of the ADA is fulfilled, and where citizens can be full participants in society throughout their lives by having needed home and community-based, independent living services and supports. The ADA has established a framework for community inclusion for people with disabilities. Now we must ensure the necessary supports are there for them to realize its promise.
Lex Frieden is professor of Biomedical Informatics and of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). He also directs the Independent Living Research Utilization (ILRU) program at TIRR Memorial Hermann. ILRU is a research, training and technical assistance program on independent living for individuals with disabilities and older adults. Frieden has served as chairperson of the National Council on Disability, United Spinal Association and American Association of People with Disabilities, and president of Rehabilitation International. He is recognized as one of the founders of the Independent Living movement by people with disabilities. He was instrumental in conceiving and drafting the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and has received two Presidential Citations for his work in the field of disability.
Frieden convenes the National Advisory Board (NAB) on Improving Health Care Services for Older Adults and People with Disabilities.