This week is the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, one of the country’s landmark civil rights measures and the signature domestic achievement of President George H.W. Bush.
The ADA mandates equal opportunities for individuals with disabilities in employment, access to public facilities, transportation and telecommunications.
Although problems persist, particularly in employment, it has transformed America, improved the lives of the 50 million people with disabilities (half of them severely disabled) and served as a model for much of the rest of the world.
“In very fundamental ways, it has changed the basic societal perception and expectations of the role of people with disabilities in America, and of the country’s obligation to make accommodations to enable the fullest practicable participation of this segment of the population,” says Robert Burgdorf Jr., a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia who wrote the first draft of the measure.
The gains have been most visible in accessibility, with curb cuts, transportation and access to public facilities. “The ADA has changed the way Americans get around and relate to their communities,” says Andy Imparato, the president of the American Association of People with Disabilities.
Citing the landmark 1954 civil rights school desegregation case, Imparato says, “The ADA is our Brown v. Board of Education.” And like Brown, it’s an evolving process that takes years, decades.
A look around the globe and the ADA’s impact is evident; it was a catalyst for the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, an international accord that requires parties to promote equal rights for and full employment of the disabled.
“The U.S. still leads the world in safeguarding the rights of its citizens with disabilities,” says Tanya Gallagher, head of the Disability Research Institute at the University of Illinois.
The Japanese are developing their own ADA-type law now, and China proudly hosted the Special Olympics for the developmentally disabled in 2008; developing countries are using the ADA as a model to start to deal with the issue.
There remain daunting challenges in health care, technology and especially jobs. The jobless rate for disabled people in the U.S. is officially 14.3 percent, or almost double that of able-bodied workers; since this figure only counts those looking for jobs, the real unemployment rate for the disabled, experts say, probably exceeds 50 percent.
There are companies that have adopted a more aggressive policy for hiring employees with disabilities. Professor Peter Blanck, chairman of the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University, recently surveyed 30,000 disabled employees at 14 companies. He found that in firms labeled by employees as “disability friendly” -- providing more accommodations, flexibility and less autocracy -- disparities in wages, retention and workplace issues disappeared.
In an interview, Blanck cited several examples of disability-friendly companies: Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft Corp., Hoffman Estates, Illinois-based Sears Roebuck & Co. and Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co. among them.
The courts, especially conservative judges, and all the way to the Supreme Court, handed down a series of anti-ADA decisions limiting these civil rights. Often, discrimination claims then were summarily dismissed.
However, the last Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which overturned a number of these unfortunate court decisions, and has facilitated the legal process for people with disabilities.
The political problems haven’t disappeared. A few months ago, Rand Paul, the Republican candidate for senator in Kentucky, dismissed government efforts. “I think if you have a two-story office, and you hire someone who’s handicapped, it might be reasonable to let him have an office on the first floor rather than the government saying you have to have a $100,000 elevator,” he said.
Much of the disabilities community considers the term handicapped pejorative; it originated in Elizabethan England, when people with disabilities were forced to beg on the street and were given a cap for handouts. Contrary to Paul’s assertions, accessibly costs for businesses and public facilities have been comparatively low.
With pervasive fiscal travails, many states are cutting back on Medicaid, often disproportionately hitting those with disabilities. Arizona this year is cutting mental health services by more than one-third.
And despite the controversial court decisions, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan wasn’t asked one question about the ADA during her confirmation hearings and there was only a single fleeting reference to disabilities. By contrast, four senators grilled her on abortion, which was mentioned 38 times in the hearings.
Still the progress, in politics, business and social mindsets, is impressive. The health-care bill passed this year banned insurance companies from denying coverage because of preexisting medical conditions, a major triumph for those with disabilities.
Vehicle Production Group LLC, with a principal investment from the Washington-based private-equity fund Perseus LLC, is producing the first passenger car specifically designed for people with disabilities, with a ramp and enough space for wheelchairs and carts to easily maneuver. The $40,000 vehicle will be available next year.
Last week, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, shepherded through the panel a measure that updates the telecommunications portion of the ADA, reflecting changes in technology. It requires smart phones to be more accessible to the disabled and online videos to include captioning.
Like the great struggles over civil rights and race, the most determinative issue is attitudinal. “Without the ADA, ignorance about the abilities and potential of persons with disabilities would be far more pervasive,” Professor Gallagher says.
The progress since Bush signed the measure in the summer of 1990 has been notable. Moreover, auguring well for the future, there’s a generational divide, with younger people far more comfortable and accepting of those with disabilities.
Yet the most remarkable change has been for those most affected.
“The ADA has helped disabled people think about their status as a measure of civil rights and equality, not simply as a medical or social welfare policy,” Imparato says. “The ADA has given us the right to talk about our disabilities and not be ashamed.”
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)