Ada Update — 15 Years And Counting

Circa 2005

Linda Crossman took a deep breath. The full-time ADA coordinator for Vacaville, California was finally able to rest.

The small city of Vacaville, which takes up just 27 square miles of land between San Francisco and Sacramento, had planned a full month of activities in celebration of the liberties the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had secured 15 years earlier for the more than 50 million Americans who live with disabilities. It hosted a Walk in Our Shoes forum; a performance by the Great Blindini, a magician who is blind and whose real name is Brent Gifford; and an accessibility planning meeting that was open to the public. Nearly every day, the Vacaville Reporter ran stories showing how the ADA has benefited people with disabilities.

All but four days had some event on the city’s calendar to publicly celebrate a month of disability awareness— most specifically July 26th, the date President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law in 1990. Crossman explains, “We decided to include as many ideas as we could, giving people a variety of ways to learn about people with disabilities. With the combination of newspaper pieces and events or activities, we felt there was something for everyone.” And Crossman, who ensures Vacaville complies with federal, state and local laws, organized it all…with the help of the city’s ADA advisory committee, she quickly emphasizes. The committee, which she chairs, acts as a liaison between the city and people with disabilities. Reflecting on the hectic month, Crossman says, “I don’t know how much time I spent, but whatever it was, it was worth it.”

A landmark civil rights law, the ADA banned discrimination based on disability and guaranteed equal opportunities for people with disabilities in areas of employment, public accommodation, transportation, government services and telecommunications. “The ADA reflects our nation’s faith in the promise of all individuals and helps to ensure that our nation’s opportunities are more accessible to all,” President George W. Bush said in commemorating the law’s 15th anniversary. “I call on all Americans to celebrate the many contributions individuals with disabilities have made to our country, and I urge our citizens to fulfill the promise of the ADA to give all people the opportunity to live with dignity, work productively and achieve their dreams.”

From the West Coast to the Eastern Shore, cities across the United States honored the president’s proclamation and celebrated 15 years of progress under the ADA. Throw a dart at a map, and a festival, picnic, sporting event, demonstration, open house or workshop could be located nearby.

In Hartford, Connecticut, the Developmental Disabilities Network held its annual celebration, aided by Jessica Jagger and Mary Eberle from the University of Connecticut’s A.J. Pappanikou Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research and Service. For this year’s event, the Developmental Disabilities Network recognized groups around the state that had gone above and beyond the requirements of the ADA. Says Eberle, “Attitudinal barriers are the hardest of all to overcome, and our celebration honored organizations that are working to break these down. By recognizing such successes, we hope to encourage others to join the bandwagon by highlighting best practices.”

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Adds Jagger, “The pursuit of civil rights and full citizenship for persons with disabilities did not end with the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, and as we work to ensure true inclusion in employment, education and community life for persons with disabilities, it is important to highlight the successes.”

The network honored four Connecticut organizations: Boundless Playgrounds, for its construction of accessible play areas; Connecticut Children’s Museum, for presenting a model of inclusion and universal design; Groton Parks and Recreation, for its dedication to inclusive programs; and Windsor Parks and Recreation/Northwest Park, for maintaining the Braille Trail, a well-kept woods walk that is accessible for people who have low vision or who are blind and people who use wheelchairs.

“We decided to focus for our first awards on organizations that provide children’s activities, because the ADA anniversary falls in the summer when school is not in session and children with disabilities are often isolated at home,” Eberle states. “We looked for organizations that, through both physical and program design, encouraged and supported the inclusion of children with disabilities in all of the activities they offered to children without disabilities.”

Across the country, each region found its own way to celebrate:

The Oklahomans for Independent Living center in McAlester, Oklahoma, commemorated the signing of the ADA by moving to a new location closer to the city’s Department of Rehabilitation Services and more visible to the public.

The Freedom Ride rally in Parsons, Kansas, featured motorcycle games, a parade ride, street dancing and live music, with a welcoming church service to cap the week.

Indianapolis citizens enclosed a time capsule in which participants had written their visions of an accessible Indiana.

Flint, Michigan, offered demonstrations about accessible recreation and gardening, presented accessible voting machines and registered eligible voters.

Pittsburgh held its annual Disability Pride Day fundraising dinner and silent auction. Later, at a rally at the Allegheny County courthouse, several youths with disabilities presented to legislators a proclamation with promises for their futures.

JOBS+, a program of the Mental Health Association of Nassau County, New York, hosted workshops to give people who have mental illnesses an overview of the ADA, with emphasis on employment rights and accommodations.

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The list goes on. But it was the nation’s capital that captured the spotlight.

In Washington DC, the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) sponsored its annual event to commemorate the ADA anniversary. The event has been home for the past five years to the Justice for All Awards, which recognize people who are extraordinary champions of the political and economic empowerment of people with disabilities. Awards were presented this year to Senator Jim Jeffords (I-VT) and Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR), both leaders in advancing disability rights in Congress, as well as author Jeffery Deaver and IBM executive vice president Nicholas Donofrio.

Yoshiko Dart, widow of the late ADA champion Justin Dart, led the annual Fun Run, a Washington DC event that carries on Dart’s memory and mission. Dozens of Fun Runs were held across the country, with proceeds going to the organization ADAPT (American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today).

Not far from the place where thousands had gathered in 1990 to see George H.W. Bush’s left-handed signature end decades of discrimination, on July 25th of this year 700 attendees celebrated the anniversary at an invitation-only reception hosted by the National Council on Disability (NCD). Appropriately, George H.W. Bush was the keynote speaker. “The ADA was a total team effort if there ever was one,” Bush said at the reception. “Tonight has a certain homecoming feeling to it. In looking around, it gives me great joy to see so many familiar faces with whom it was my privilege to work, back when I still had a day job.”

One of those was familiar faces belonged to Lex Frieden, chairperson of the NCD.

“Part of President Bush’s legacy is that he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, but his relationship with the National Council on Disability started well before then,” Frieden relates. “The ADA means a lot to President Bush. So when we asked him to be part of our 15-year celebration, he was happy and proud to take part in it.”

Frieden was part of the group in 1986 that presented then-Vice President Bush with the report Toward Independence, which proposed a comprehensive disability rights act that later became the ADA. “I have talked to a lot of high school kids and college kids who have disabilities, and they were either very young or not even born when the ADA was signed,” he says. “They are growing up in a different world than we did. They can’t imagine a world where people with disabilities can’t use a facility. It’s hard to remember how things really were. Sometimes I have to pinch myself. There has been so much progress that it’s phenomenal.”

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As part of the reception’s program, the George Bush Medal for the Empowerment of People with Disabilities was presented to Allan Reich, president emeritus of the National Organization on Disability; Dr. I. King Jordan, president of Gallaudet University; and Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland.

“In looking back some two decades later, you can indeed say we’ve moved our society forward toward independence, and the signing of the ADA was certainly a significant step along that wonderful path,” the elder President Bush said at the reception.

Secretaries of labor, transportation, housing and urban development, health and human services and homeland security were all present and spoke at the reception. At the NCD’s second event on July 26th—a seminar at the Marriott with workshops focusing on ADA-related issues—more than 300 people participated, and leaders of the Social Security Administration and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission spoke. “Each wanted to join the celebration, but they also each acknowledged that we have a great deal of work to do if we are to reach our vision,” Frieden says of the government officials. “To me, that was important.”

As a preview to the NCD’s annual ADA Impact Study, the organization released a paper elaborating how the ADA has left its mark: NCD and the Americans with Disabilities Act: 15 Years of Progress. Several strides have been made, according to the paper, in communication, transportation, accessibility to public facilities, and narrowing the education and employment gap, although a need for further improvement remains.

Increasingly, local governments are creating ADA compliance positions like Crossman’s to ensure those improvements are on the calendar. “I strongly believe the ADA is much more than fixing physical barriers,” Crossman says. “Most of the ADA coordinator position should be focused on people—education, responsiveness, understanding and awareness.”

But now that the parades have ended, the receptions are over and the open houses have closed their doors, this question remains: Will the progress continue?

The more Linda Crossmans that are hired, the more cities that will be able to say, “Yes.”

by Josh Pate

As celebrations rippled across most of the U.S., some ceremonies took a different tone.

In Trenton, New Jersey, approximately 200 men and women braved steamy weather to demonstrate that the ADA has not, in fact, been fulfilled as promised. The march, sponsored by the Monday Morning Project and the Council on Developmental Disabilities, began at the Trenton state house and ended at Mill Hill Park; along the route, participants encountered steep curb cuts, rugged sidewalks and, in some places, a total lack of wheelchair access.

Nationally, even the ADA’s strongest advocates conceded that the act has not been upheld to its fullest extent in all areas during its 15-year lifespan.

“This anniversary stirs mixed emotions for those of us who work closely with people with disabilities and, of course, for people with disabilities themselves,” said Wayne M. Lerner, DrPH, president and CEO of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) and Henry Betts, MD, chairman of the RIC Foundation, in a joint statement. “So while the ADA has forced changes in access to physical locations, we know that in terms of awareness, acceptance and the provision of educational, housing, employment and transportation opportunities, there is still considerable progress to be made.”

Several statistics and developments illuminate the mixed feelings of Drs. Lerner and Betts:

• A 2004 Harris Survey conducted for the National Organization on Disability found that just 35 percent of people with disabilities report being employed full- or part-time, compared to 78 percent of people without disabilities. Twenty-six percent of people with disabilities live in poverty—three times the number of people without disabilities. People with disabilities are also twice as likely to have inadequate transportation.

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• The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) released a report showing that actors with disabilities are severely underrepresented in television and movie roles. Although in real life one out of five Americans has a disability, less than two percent of television characters have a disability, and of those, 0.5 percent have speaking roles. “The ADA was a quantum leap in the right direction, and SAG has been a tremendous advocate,” said actor Robert David Hall of CBS’ CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. “But today we have the first real documentation of what performers with disabilities and their advocates have long suspected: we have far to go to achieve true equality of opportunity.”

• President George W. Bush acknowledged the shortcomings of the ADA and the measures that must be taken to stay the course. He has launched the New Freedom Initiative to increase the use of technology use in educational and employment platforms. A new website——has been created as a comprehensive home for information. According to the president, accessibility, education and employment are top priorities of the Administration.

• The U.S. Department of Justice has begun Project Civic Access, working with more than 100 state and local governments to bring them into compliance with the ADA. The department has entered into agreements with 129 cities, towns and counties that are not yet fully successful in making their programs and services accessible. Starting in 1992, the ADA required all new facilities to be accessible. Changes to older buildings may also be required if needed to make government services accessible, but these changes are subject to reasonable time and expense.

Time and expense—these are perhaps the two greatest factors that have prevented the ADA from realizing its full potential for eliminating discrimination and physical barriers for people with disabilities.

“It’s been 15 years since President [George H.W.] Bush made his promise,” Lerner and Betts contended in their statement. “Though it has yet to be fulfilled, it can be if we continue our activism.”

Frank Bowe, longtime disability rights activist and professor in the Counseling, Research, Special Education and Rehabilitation Department at Hofstra University, gave perhaps the most succinct explanation as to why the ADA has yet to result in complete change: “Civil rights,” he said, “take time.”

by Josh Pate

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