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Monday, July 26, 2010

Thoughts on the ADA at 20

Anniversaries are often a time to evaluate. While I am certainly no disability scholar, I have been following the flow of information – or lack thereof – about today’s 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act with great interest. Admittedly, information is available if you’re looking for it. The anniversary has also certainly enhanced my efforts to find a post per day with PhillyACCESS, a blog I started in November geared toward the disability community.

Yet, I wonder how many people in the general public have any idea that the anniversary is upon us. In fact, I wonder if the percentage of people who are aware of the anniversary increases all that much within the disability community among non-advocates or non-activists. My guess is that the percentage is very low within the first group, and increases only minimally in the second. I confess that I may or may not have heard about it over the course of the last week if I wasn’t working on PhillyACCESS, and even that is an optimistic view.

More importantly, I wonder how much impact the legislation has on the daily lives of people with disabilities today.

The ADA is heralded as the civil rights legislation for people with disabilities. Sad as it is that we needed to have our rights specifically spelled out in a law – and no question, we did – having that behind us in our attempts to gain equality is invaluable. But it is only a starting point.

I was entering my senior year of high school 20 years ago. I had been mainstreamed only since the 8th grade after having proved I was capable of attending regular classes to Special Education teachers. I had already been told by the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation that I was not college material and couldn’t drive, based on testing which neither I nor my parents had asked for. I had never even heard of OVR. My classmates and I were simply told we had to go for OVR testing by our resource room teacher. In fact, I wasn’t even given the driving portion of the testing that day. The evaluator simply looked at me and told me to rest while my classmate took the initial driving test. Two other classmates took the same test another day.

I eventually graduated with honors from college (my parents paid my tuition as they did for my brothers), and have been driving for 18 years (and OVR has paid for each of the vans I’ve owned to be modified). To my knowledge, only one of my classmates ever got his driver’s license. None attended a university.

Today, “mainstreaming” is unheard of as children far more impaired than I are educated by their home district in the regular classrooms at all costs. Attending college appears to be a foregone conclusion. And, I’m guessing OVR isn’t telling anyone they can’t drive without a hell of a lot more than an eyeball test.

Unquestionably, I can see the progress even in my own experience. Access, both physical and otherwise, is much improved. But can the same be said about the image of people with disabilities? What about our place in the business world? Is it truly improved?

It’s too easy to dismiss the second issue as a product of the current disastrous economy. When I graduated college, one of my brothers made the comment that the ADA is for people who already have jobs, and nothing I’ve ever experienced has contradicted that statement.

The ADA hasn’t stopped employers who “love my resume” from hanging up the phone with some bogus excuse once my speech disability becomes clear. It hasn’t stopped so-called advocacy agencies intended to help the quality of life of people with disabilities from ignoring the disability community in their own hiring practices. Twenty years of the ADA hasn’t given much of a megaphone to the voices of former “Jerry’s Kids” in their protesting of Jerry Lewis’ patronizing ways or any other protests from the community. It certainly hasn’t stopped paternalistic attitudes throughout the disability-related industry.

The list, of course, goes on and on.

My hope is that the next 20 years will see a community of physically disabled individuals with normal levels of intelligence yet facing significant physical and attitudinal barriers to becoming not only self-sufficient but successful members of society form a true community.

Instead of focusing on superficial issues like which label we’re ok with – “disabled” or “people with disabilities” – we need to start taking control of our own community interests. Advocacy groups geared toward our community need to be run and staffed by people with disabilities. We must find ways to pressure the media to offer our issues real and consistent coverage, and cease covering us as nothing more than human interest stories.

As a person with cerebral palsy, I can absolutely attest to the fact that the focus on people who have spinal cord injuries from our community “re-entering society” needs to begin trickling down to the rest of the community still seeking the first opportunity to enter society.

We have to be more careful about allowing medical issues and institutional issues – getting benefits and other necessities – to dominate our own conversations. Waiting for the miracle cure, too, must stop.

The internet must continue to be optimized. I believe, as I’m sure most do, that the World Wide Web is our best hope to create a level playing field in the business world. That’s not to play into the “you have a disability, study computers” anthem I heard in school. It’s about utilizing a tool that can open opportunities in all areas.

Economic success is the only way members of the disability community will attain equality. The issue doesn’t even seem to have been raised in the community on a serious level yet when it should be the primary issue without a close second.

The process has started, but we must work to ensure that the first 20 years of the ADA was merely the infancy of people with disabilities becoming full-fledged members of society.

Today, it’s a time to salute those who brought the Americans with Disabilities Act into being. When we’re done, we better get a lot more serious about the business of making it the landmark day it’s supposed to be.