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After 10 Years, The ADA is Changing the Landscape of America


Posted July, 2000

The Americans with Disabilities Act is changing the landscape of America.

In the 10 years since being signed into law, people with disabilities now expect, as a popular bumper sticker proclaims, "to boldly go where everyone else had gone before."

Success shines in ordinary things. Now I can go to the grocery store in my wheelchair and not be blocked by a turnstile. I can get on a bus that has a lift and go across town. I can go to a movie and not be limited to sitting in a corner at the back of the theater. I can go shopping and use an accessible fitting room. I can travel and find an accessible hotel room at my destination. I can go to the bathroom at the airport and use an accessible stall -- if someone who is not disabled is not in there with his luggage.

Before the ADA not one of these activities was assured.

People with disabilities have much greater mobility. We are able to move about our communities easier, enter and use shops and restaurants and city and county buildings and facilities. We have more access to telecommunications via relay services and captioning services. The ADA applies also to programs offered to the public, from the SATs to professional licensing exams to recreational services.

But the ADA has not produced nirvana. Much has changed for the better, but much remains to be done.

Just in the past three months, my own experience is a good indicator:

  • In St. Louis, where I was attending a conference, I needed transportation from my downtown hotel to a meeting a couple of miles away. My wife called the bus company to find out the best route. After a couple of calls she connected to a person who gave the information, but when she asked (out of old habit) if the bus was accessible, the answer was less than reassuring. She was told that "most people" tell the bus company ahead of time when and where they are going so they can make sure that a bus with a working lift will be on that route that day. All buses are supposed to have working lifts. WeÕre not supposed to have to call a day or more ahead, no more than any other citizen has to.

    In the end, my wife (a scooter user) and I rolled on the streets to our meeting. Even then we had to ride in the streets on occasion because several intersections along the way lacked curb cuts.

  • In New York City, we were referred to an accessible hotel in the theater district. When we arrived, my wife was unable to get through the door of the so-called accessible room. The second room they offered was so small that we both could not get in at the same time.The hotel then offered to rent us two separate rooms.

  • Last month, a county agency on aging honored us for our work in disseminating information about independent living for people with disabilities. The luncheon was wonderful until the awards were presented. You guessed it, the stage was inaccessible. The worst part was they didnÕt even seem to realize what they had done was not only rude and insensitive, but illegal as well.

    These things should not have happened. The law prohibits them. But enforcement, primarily the responsibility of the federal Department of Justice, is under funded. Individuals with disabilities end up having to pursue compliance on their own through the courts. But beyond the law, people should know better. People with disabilities are demeaned and discounted daily. We become angry, because we expect better. The ADA has raised our expectation for access and accommodation.

    One of the biggest expectations we have is access to employment. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities has been -- and remains -- at about 70 percent. The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. But we live in a society where people with disabilities are too often regarded as dependent and pitiable. What employer wants to hire such a person? Just this week, a story from Connecticut told of a woman with a disability who graduated at the top of her class in a double major of accounting and computer science. In a tight employment market, many of her classmates with lower academic standing were offered jobs before graduation. She is still looking.

    Still, on this 10th anniversary of the ADA, I am hopeful. The ADA is designed to include more Americans in the give-and-take of life. It specifically aims to achieve reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities without imposing undue hardship on anyone.

    Rome was not made accessible in a day. Ten years has given us only a start on transforming America. But it will happen. The landscape will continue to change. ThatÕs the American Dream.

    William G. Stothers is Deputy Director of The Center for An Accessible Society.






    Expert sources

    From the Disability and Business Technical Assistance Centers:

    Historical Context of the ADA

    ADA definition of disability

    Overview of law's structure

    The ADA is changing the landscape of America -- commentary

    "The ADA changed my life" -- personal stories

    The meaning of "disability" under ADA

    "A misunderstood law" -- commentary

    The ADA Notification Act

    Supreme Court ADA decisions:

    About The Center for An Accessible Society