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Happy Birthday, Dear ADA

July 26th, 2005 | Paula Brantner

Today, July 26, 2005, marks the 15th birthday of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Like many teenagers, the ADA can give people fits. It continues to go through some growing pains, and there’s frustration that it’s not all grown up. But it also has a distinct personality of its own. And it has unselfishly given back to others in its short life. Let’s hope the ADA survives to become a productive adult, given all the abuse that it’s taken along the way. Enough with the tortured teenager analogies…let’s see what’s going on!

Who’s having a party?

The Kidspace Children’s Museum in Pasadena, that’s who. Well, actually, you missed it already — it was held on July 9. But the museum thought it was important to celebrate with events geared toward the “integration and education of all children,” in order to “bring able-bodied and disabled children together.” (See Whittier Daily News.) And we’re not talking whacking the piñata while blindfolded: instead, there was a soccer challenge, where players wore goggles that simulated different types of vision, a sign language workshop and a wheelchair basketball demonstration with the Fast Breakin’ Lakers, a wheelchair basketball team sponsored by the Los Angeles Lakers.


Walk A Mile In My Wheelchair

In Reading, Pennsylvania, the group Abilities in Motion is sponsoring a walk around town: in a wheelchair. Able-bodied participants can experience what Adrienne Greth went through:

I never realized exactly how different it is for someone to be in a wheelchair and maneuver around the streets of reading. It’s not just the physical aspect- it’s the aspect of construction of the road and the bumps in the sidewalks and that sort of thing and that’s a challenge for me.

(See WFMZ-TV transcript, video clip (Real Player required))


Harkin-ing for Shoes

Sen. Tom Harkin, chief sponsor of the ADA, tells about his personal inspiration for moving the law forward: his deaf brother Frank, “was sent far from home to a “school for the deaf and dumb” (yes, people routinely used this offensive term – and worse), and later was offered just three job possibilities: baker, printer’s assistant or cobbler.” Thanks to Harkin’s efforts, as well as many others in Congress:

Fifteen years after the act’s passage, the physical impacts of ADA’s quiet revolution are all around us. Sidewalks are equipped with curb cuts allowing access for people using wheelchairs. New buildings are outfitted in countless ways, with ramps, wide doors and large bathroom stalls, to accommodate people with disabilities. Service animals are welcome in restaurants and shops. For those of us who are able-bodied, these changes are all but invisible. For a person with a disability, they are transforming and liberating. So are provisions in ADA outlawing discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in the workplace and requiring employers to provide “reasonable accommodations.”

Enough with the revolutionary talk, though…as one wheelchair user told Harkin during the campaign to pass the law, “Senator, I know that’s important. But I just want the freedom to go out and buy a pair of shoes, just like anybody else.” (See Des Moines Register op-ed.)

Progress is Slow

While no one wants to go back to the pre-ADA days, for some, there is not enough to celebrate. “For employment, the ADA has not been a real success at all,” said Rachel Urquhart, executive director of the Arc of Kent County. “Too much bad case law was made by people bringing wrong ADA claims, and they have watered down the strength of the act for the people who have true disabilities.” (See MLive article.)

The courts are to blame, says UPenn law professor Louis S. Rulli: “The courts have construed the employment provisions very narrowly. In a series of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and other leading federal courts they have cut back the reach of the ADA. They’ve interpreted the statute in ways that were not intended.” Part of the reason is based on hostility to the ADA, he says. “People view it as giving the disabled an added advantage over other workers in the workplace — akin to affirmative action analogy — that somehow by accommodating people with disabilities we’re giving them an advantage over people who are not disabled, and as a result there’s been a limiting of the (employment) provisions of the ADA in the courts.” (See Ventura County Star.)


Let’s Keep Moving Forward

Statement of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi:

The 15th anniversary is a call to renew our efforts to realize the promise of the ADA and work to restore its full protections which have been stripped away by recent court decisions. We must implement policies intended by the ADA, so that individuals with disabilities can obtain jobs for which they qualify. Full and equal access for individuals with disabilities to education, governmental services, public accommodations, transportation, housing, and the right to vote must be secured. Our work is far from finished. Even as we maintain our hard-fought gains and prevent harmful proposals, we must continue to advance the rights of all. It is our journey and our obligation as Americans.

Now I looked for a statement by Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, and I didn’t find one. Supporting the ADA isn’t a partisan activity: after all, who signed the ADA 15 years ago but George Herbert Walker Bush?

More Information:

Workplace Fairness: disability discrimination
Short-Changed: hidden barriers: discrimination

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC):
Facts About the Americans with Disabilities Act
The ADA: Your Employment Rights as an Individuals with a Disability

Sam Bagenstos: The Disability Law Blog

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