ADA: 19 YEARS OF PROGRESS
At the end of July, we commemorated the 19th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—the landmark civil rights law securing the rights of people with disabilities. As chief Senate sponsor of this legislation, I remember the day it was signed into law—July 26, 1990—as one of the proudest in my entire legislative career.
Nineteen years later, we have made amazing progress. Streets, buildings and transportation are more accessible for people with physical disabilities. Information is offered in alternative formats—including closed captioning—so that it is useable by individuals with visual or hearing impairments. Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations so that people with disabilities can have equal opportunity in the workplace. And we have advanced the four goals of the ADA— equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency. These changes are all around us, and are so integrated into our daily lives that it is sometimes hard to remember how the world was before the ADA.
Last year, we were able to pass the ADA Amendments Act, overturning a series of Supreme Court cases that greatly narrowed the scope of who is protected by the ADA. These cases held, first, that mitigating measures –such as medication, prosthetics, or other assistive devices—must be considered in determining whether a person has a disability under the ADA; and second, that there must be a demanding standard in assessing whether an individual has a “disability.” In each of those cases, the Supreme Court did not look at the report language and the findings we had made in the Congress as to who is covered by the ADA.
The ADA Amendments Act restored our original Congressional intent by clarifying and broadening the definition of disability in the ADA, and increasing eligibility for the protections of the ADA. Thanks to that legislation, people who were denied coverage under the ADA will now be covered.
Despite the very real progress in the nearly two decades since we passed the ADA, we still have an unfinished agenda. At the top of the list is the Community Choice Act. All across America, individuals with significant disabilities who are on Medicaid and need an institutional level of care have the right to receive their care in an institutional setting or nursing home. But they are denied the equal right to choose to receive their services in a home or community-based setting.
Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C. (1999), individuals with disabilities have the right to choose to receive their long-term services and supports in the community, rather than in an institutional setting. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the Olmstead decision—which was based on the ADA.
In Olmstead, the Supreme Court said “institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life.” Changing these assumptions is what the ADA was all about.
Although many states have made progress over the past 10 years in extending home and community-based services, it has been done in a patchwork way that keeps many individuals with significant disabilities on waiting lists or living in states with insufficient services.
As a result, there are more than half a million individuals, with various types of disabilities, who do not have adequate community-based attendant services and supports to help them with critical activities of daily living. In the case of an individual with a significant spinal cord injury, this may mean assistance getting ready in the morning and out of the house for work. Such services are critical because if an individual cannot get this assistance, then they are not able to go to work, even if they want to. They cannot benefit from the curb cuts, the accessible transportation, or the reasonable accommodations that employers must provide. The vast progress we have made does not extend to them. This is a profound injustice.
As Congress hammers out comprehensive health reform this summer and fall, we must seize on this opportunity to make progress in extending the availability of attendant supports and services. Every individual with a significant disability deserves the choice about where to live, where to receive their essential services, and whether and where to work.
Another ongoing challenge is the employment of individuals with disabilities. Recent surveys show that 63 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed. They want to work. They have abilities. But they are unemployed. This is due to a variety of factors: many individuals lack adequate support services; some employers are not providing reasonable accommodations; and some are still reluctant to hire people with disabilities. An estimated 21 million people with disabilities are not employed and we need to do a better job with providing these individuals the opportunity for economic self-sufficiency as we promised in the ADA.
We have not yet arrived at the Promised Land—certainly not with the high unemployment rate among people with disabilities and a lack of available communitybased attendant services and supports. We have more work to do.
On July 26, 1990, when he signed ADA into law, President George Herbert Walker Bush spoke with great eloquence. And I will never forget his final words before taking up his pen. He said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”
Today, that wall is indeed falling. The ADA has opened doors, created opportunity, and transformed lives. Let us continue this progress!
Senator Tom Harkin