by Lex Frieden
Each year, around the anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I am asked by the press and others: “Exactly what has the ADA accomplished?” and “Looking forward, what must be done to realize the vision of full participation that underlies the ADA?” These are thoughtful questions and not easy ones to answer in a sound bite. Given some additional space, here are some answers that I think are reasonable and maybe enlightening for some readers. My colleague George Powers, from the Southwest ADA Center, helped me document some of my assertions. I would love to hear (or see) your views on the subject as well.
The ADA has had a profound effect on our social and physical environments. The law has significantly changed how people with disabilities (and in many respects those without disabilities) interact with the environment (Szold, 2002).
To make a reasonably valid judgment about impact, one must compare how things were before the ADA with the way things are now. Before the ADA, virtually no public transportation was available to people with mobility impairments (Szold, 2002); public buildings, including courthouses, city halls and libraries were not generally accessible; public venues like parks, theaters and stadia were not accessible; educational facilities at public schools (k-12), colleges and universities were not fully accessible; many businesses, shops, stores and restaurants were not accessible; and even public toilets could not be accessed by people using walkers, scooters or wheelchairs (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 2009).
Books in libraries, exhibits in museums, menus in restaurants and winding passageways in buildings were not accessible to people with visual impairments. There were no tactile indications on curbs showing blind people where to cross streets or audible signals at crosswalks telling them when it was safe to do so. Deaf people were not allowed to serve on juries, or to enjoy motion pictures in theaters, or understand what was happening at public meetings, or even communicate with healthcare personnel in hospitals. People with certain hidden disabilities ranging from severe arthritis to psychiatric disabilities had no hope that employers would provide accommodations for them that would enable them to do their jobs effectively, despite their impairments (L. Wylonis, N.T. Wylonis, & R. Sadoff, 2017).
For the most part, the barriers noted above, and many more, have been removed by the ADA. Today, nearly every public transit system in the United States is accessible to people with disabilities (American Public Transportation Association, 2015). Theoretically, every public building, courthouse, city hall and library built in the last 25 years ought to be accessible (Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in State and Local Government Services, 2010). More and more private buildings, stores, shops, restaurants, theaters, shopping centers and sporting venues are becoming accessible (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 2009). Because of the ADA, local governments are making more and more sidewalks accessible; and people who use wheelchairs and those with other mobility impairments can traverse their cities (Department of Justice/Department of Transportation, 2013; Jones, 2010). Today, people with disabilities, including hidden ones, can compete for jobs with the expectation that they will be treated equally, and if they are not, they are protected from discrimination by the ADA and may seek legal recourse (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 2009).
Perhaps of equal or greater importance than the physical barriers that have been ameliorated by the ADA are the social and perceptual barriers affected by the legislation (Davis, 2016). Unlike times before the ADA, data now indicate that most people without disabilities see those who have disabilities as part of the natural environment (Taylor, Krane, & Orkis, 2010). Because people with disabilities can now be in places where they could not be before, and because they can do things that they could not do before, they are now accepted as part of the typical society and respected for that which they can do rather than stigmatized because of that which they cannot do. Few other legislative initiatives have had such a revolutionary and transformative impact as the ADA.
So, given all the improvements in our physical and social environments that have been made since the ADA was enacted, what remains to be done? What challenges lie ahead of us? Elaborating on this question requires more space than I have available here. But, I am happy to share a few of my thoughts on the matter by offering the following list.
Most significant challenges and opportunities facing the disability movement and our society going forward:
- Create employment opportunities and eliminate employment discrimination
- Maintain access, affordability and non-discrimination in healthcare
- Produce and distribute twenty-first century assistive technology, devices and robotics
- Expand availability of personal assistance and housing to support community living
- Update and aggressively enforce standards for accessibility
- Promulgate strict regulations regarding access to the virtual world
- Accelerate implementation of advanced telemedicine
- Prioritize services and supports for people in low-income and rural areas
- Expand access to affordable mental health services
The must-do list going forward is challenging. But it is not insurmountable. The key to fully realizing the vision of the ADA, and ensuring equal opportunities and good quality of life for people with disabilities and older adults is to have a manageable plan for addressing these issues; to commit the resources necessary to reach the objectives of the plan without delay; and to begin work NOW!
There are approximately 56.7 million people with disabilities and 76 million Baby Boomers in the US today (US Census Bureau, 2010). Half of the Baby Boomers will have a disability in the next three years. In other words, the population of people with disabilities is getting larger, not smaller. Further, the growth rate is rising so rapidly that the economy will not be able to adjust to the large number of people who will soon need home and community based services and supports (HCBS). The current HCBS infrastructure is already inadequate. I hesitate to speculate about what might happen if we do not find the means to meet the present and pending HCBS needs and to fully implement the ADA.
Three years before the ADA was enacted, most people were not aware of disability discrimination. Further, most people with disabilities who were aware of discrimination did not know about the proposed ADA, and most of those who knew about it did not believe the ADA would become law. When the ADA became law, the landscape for people with disabilities changed both literally and figuratively. Twenty-seven years after the ADA was enacted, there are barriers and challenges that have yet to be overcome and some worry that there is not enough resolve to move forward. Believe me, we have the resources to create a good future for people with disabilities and older adults. And, I believe we have the energy and resolve to do so. As we reflect on our past achievements and celebrate ADA27, we must capture a new vision of the future and rise up to make it real. The future starts TODAY