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The Americans with Disabilities Act: Three Decades Later

National Center for Disability and Journalism

Destiny Dash
Destiny Dash, one of millions of American with disabilities, had trouble finding a job, despite protections afforded by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“I don’t think this job is for you.”

Six years later, the words still sting for Destiny Dash. The recent college graduate had been sitting with her mother in the lobby of a potential employer’s company, reviewing materials for her upcoming interview.

The job, selling magazine subscriptions over the phone, had seemed easy enough. As a theater studies major at the University of Illinois, Dash had plenty of experience memorizing and delivering lines, and she was rehearsing the agency’s scripts with her mother that morning as she waited for the interview to begin.

It was hardly an ideal job for Dash, but she was growing increasingly anxious for employment and the sense of independence it might finally afford her. Born with spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy, she has used a wheelchair most of her life. But as badly as she wanted a job – and a place to live on her own – she was having trouble finding something suitable.

“A job search is tough for any student fresh out of college,” Dash said. “But it’s like 20 times scarier, 20 times tougher, for someone like me than for an able-bodied person.”

That morning, when her interviewer emerged from her office to start the interview, Dash could tell from her face that something had already gone wrong.

“She’d overheard my Mom and me going over the lines,” Dash recalled, “and I guess she assumed that my Mom was coaching me or making me do something I couldn’t already do.”

The woman questioned Dash’s ability to work independently, going so far as to express doubt about whether, in case of an emergency, she would be able to quickly leave the building by herself. By the time she said those hurtful words, Dash knew the job was out of the question.

“At this point, my Mom and I were really upset, and we began to leave,” Dash said. “But on our way out, I remember Mom asking the lady, ‘Haven’t you ever heard of the ADA?’”

The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law by President H. W. Bush in 1990, was intended to help disabled people integrate into society, especially with regard to their employment and transportation. It fundamentally changed the manner in which buildings would be constructed, and it helped bring about a global movement for the rights of the disabled, culminating in the formation of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Since the ADA became law, employment rates among the disabled have been steadily rising. Disability employment numbers available through the U.S. Census show that in 1980, 10 years before the ADA was signed into law, roughly 20 percent of the disabled were employed. In 1990 that number had grown to about 32 percent, and by 2010 it had reached about 34 percent, according to a NCDJ analysis.

But for all the changes the legislation forced, disability rights advocates say it hasn’t gone far enough and that court rulings along the way have actually undercut some of the gains made for the disabled.

Others, like Walter Olson, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, have opposed the law from the beginning. Olson argues with the central premise of the law – equality for disabled individuals.

“In general, I find “equality” not very useful as a guide star,” he said. “Sometimes it makes sense to accord disabled persons more consideration and more resources than the non-disabled get, other times it does not make sense to do so, but trying to make the life experience of the blind and the sighted, or the paraplegic and the ambulatory, ‘equal’ in some ultimate legal sense is a vain hope and an invitation to the levying of impractical demands and to social conflict.”

Olson also believes the law oversteps the federal government’s power and infringes on the rights of private citizens to manage their private property. He says it actually lowered the employment rate for the disabled after it went into effect.

“There is evidence that some employers have actually disengaged from purposeful efforts to employ the disabled, given the added legal risks that failure to accommodate now poses,” he said.

Greg Perry, the author of a book, “Disabling America: The Unintended Consequences of the Government’s Protection of the Handicapped,” was born with three deformed fingers and one leg. He’s become one of the most ardent public critics of the ADA.

“If someone doesn’t want to hire me then I certainly don’t want to work for him,” Perry wrote in fall 2010. “My self-worth is more important than getting some ADA advocate to force that employer at gunpoint to give me a job. Why would anyone in his right mind want to work in that environment?”

Perry also said that the free market is enough to force business and retail establishments accessible to everyone. If one store doesn’t want to work with the disabled, another store surely will, he said.

“What do I want the government doing for me? I want the government to get out of my way and leave me alone,” Perry said during a C-SPAN book event several years ago. “When it comes to business, my wallet buys me all the equality I need.”

But disability rights organizations contend that more needs to be done. They say that 51 million Americans with disabilities continue to face a host of problems that affect their everyday lives. These range from access to buildings to inadequate restroom facilities and workplace requirements that limit their employment prospects.

“The ADA is a civil rights law, not a human rights law,” said Marilyn Golden, a policy analyst for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. “It doesn’t provide economic or social rights in the United States, which people with disabilities really need for meaningful inclusion.”

“We need meaningful methods to solve problems that the ADA can’t fix. We need personal assistant services; we need attendant care; we need long-term care and we need ways to address poverty,” Golden said. “These are things that are really beyond the scope of a civil rights law like the ADA.”

The ADA also has been shaped, and in some ways undermined, by several Supreme Court decisions within the past two decades.

The 1999 decision in Sutton v. United Air Lines, for example, effectively limited the scope of the ADA by stipulating that employers could refuse to provide accommodations to people whose disabilities could be corrected or mitigated, as such impairments would no longer be considered “substantial limitations.”

For example, Golden explained, a person with epilepsy might not be considered disabled as long as he or she is taking medication to control the disease.

In another 1999 decision, Murphy v. United Parcel Service, the Supreme Court ruled against a man who had challenged his termination from his job, saying it was a form of discrimination. The man, whose blood pressure exceeded U.S. Department of Transportation requirements for his position, argued that his impairment was sufficiently “substantial” as to warrant the ADA’s protection. The court, however, held that because his condition could be mitigated with medication, he had no right to contest his termination on the basis of a disability.

In 2008, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act, which restored the broader and more inclusive definition of disability provided in the original legislation. The amendments established a better balance between employer and employee interests but largely ignored many other issues affecting the daily lives of millions of people with disabilities, disability advocates say.

While most people think the ADA solved problems of access in buildings, for example, access is still limited.

Many newly constructed buildings, while adhering to ADA stipulations, aren’t fully accessible to the disabled. Doors may not come equipped with a mechanized button to open them or bathrooms aren’t big enough to accommodate a wheelchair.

The sidewalks and ramps leading to these buildings also can be problematic. The ADA called for “curb cuts” at intersections so wheelchairs can get up and down curbs, but these are still spotty in many American cities, while some of the ramps built at those curb cuts are too steep for safe use.

The ADA left some accommodations up to local and public officials. These include decisions on whether to install audio alerts, such as chirping sounds, at crosswalks so that pedestrians with visual impairments know when it’s safe to cross a street.

New U.S. Department of Justice regulations, which went into effect in March 2011, could improve access for the disabled in public buildings. The regulations amend ADA standards to reflect and accommodate the increased use of service animals, power-driven mobility devices and interpreter services provided through video conferencing.

According to the Department of Justice, the changes will affect “more than 80,000 units of state and local government and more than seven million places of public accommodation,” targeting everything from sporting arenas and shopping malls to doctors’ offices and polling places.

For Destiny, who’s now happy to be in her fifth year of work as a customer service representative for the Strathmore Music Center near her home in Maryland, the recent overhaul of policy is another welcome, if long overdue, step. She counts herself fortunate to work for an employer who is accommodating of her disability and believes her job search, which lasted over a year, is emblematic of the larger struggle faced by disabled Americans.

“I just happened to get lucky, I guess,” she said with a sigh. “My boss is progressive, and it was a personal choice for him to hire me, but still a total shot in the dark. And I’ve come to believe that, for disabled people, that’s what it’s come to be.”