By Shelby Bril
I sustained an incomplete spinal cord injury in 2010, resulting in impaired mobility and the need to use a walker. The idea of navigating life in a new body seemed daunting but I knew it wasn’t impossible. With the right equipment and accessibility of public spaces, I knew I’d be able to continue to work full time, bring my child to the park, pick her up from school, go to the store, and attend events without the worry of being left out due to inaccessibility or discrimination. It never crossed my mind that my rights as a U.S. citizen could be in jeopardy.
Before the ADA
If I would’ve been injured in a different time—a time before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—my life would have been much different. My freedom, ability to earn a living, raise my child and just live everyday life would have been severely hindered.
Before the ADA, discrimination against people with disabilities was totally legal. Employers could pay people with disabilities less than their non-disabled counterparts, or refuse to hire them all together just because they’re disabled. Wheelchair users couldn’t ride the buses or trains, because they weren’t wheelchair accessible. Restaurants and grocery stores could refuse service to people with disabilities. Even government entities denied rights that we now take for granted, like voting or getting a driver’s license.
Championed by Ted Kennedy, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law on July 26, 1990. Senator Kennedy fought passionately for the bill, having seen first-hand the challenges faced by his sister who was born with an intellectual disability, and his son who became an amputee after losing a leg to bone cancer.
The ADA prevents discrimination against people with disabilities, with regulations that cover employment, government services, education, public accommodations, telecommunications, and transportation.
Thanks to the ADA, we’ve created a public environment that works for all U.S. citizens, not just the able-bodied. Disability can happen anytime and to anyone, due to accident, chronic disease, illness or just aging. With this in mind, the ADA is a protective measure for non-disabled citizens and an inclusive one for those with disabilities.
Now, thirty years later, we’ve become accustomed to the way of life inspired by the Americans with Disabilities Act. We have better access to education, healthcare, and other services than we did before the ADA was passed. Elevators, curb cut-outs and braille on ATM’s are simply part of the landscape. In fact, we’re surprised if any of those things are missing. So, what more needs to be done at this point?
Better Enforcement of ADA Rules
ADA accessibility is not included in standard building inspections. Right now, accessibility rules are only enforced when a person with a disability has experienced a barrier to access in a public space or building and is willing to sue those who don’t comply. Even if a lawsuit is filed, it’s easy for businesses to claim that the necessary updates to meet ADA standards are too costly or difficult. Currently, the ADA does not impose undue hardships on businesses, which means many are able to treat equality for people with disabilities as an option rather than a requirement. There is no excuse, 30 years after the passing of the ADA, for businesses to be inaccessible. If any other minority group was excluded from a building, the public outcry would be huge. People with disabilities deserve the same respect and consideration as everyone else.
When it comes to ADA standards, the focus needs to shift away from doing the bare minimum to avoid a lawsuit, and instead concentrate on Universal Design. Buildings, public spaces, and products should be accessible to all people, regardless of ability or disability. Universal Design celebrates the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act, in that it aims to increase productivity and enjoyment for everyone in our society.
The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by employers, and yet, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8 percent of people with disabilities were unemployed in 2018, compared to only 3.7 percent of people without a disability.
A college degree improves the chance of finding a job, with 28.5 percent of disabled college graduates finding employment, compared to 15.6 percent of disabled job seekers who only have a high school diploma.
The good news is that with each passing year comes a new batch of people with disabilities who have college degrees, thanks to better access to education.
The disabled community is clearly still experiencing discrimination in the job market, likely due to stigma and ignorance on the part of the employers as a whole and individuals who do the hiring. Employers need to increase efforts to recruit qualified people with disabilities, provide training to management and necessary accommodations to disabled workers.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was a huge step forward for our society. It created positive change in the lives of generations of people with disabilities, their families, friends, and colleagues. For thirty years, the ADA has served as a foundation for people with disabilities to fight for their rights and avoid discrimination.
Although there is still work to be done, there is no doubt that the ADA has shown that it’s ok to celebrate our differences and build an infrastructure that suits us all.
Shelby Smallwood is a writer and blogger on a journey to learn how to be disabled in an able-bodied world. After sustaining an incomplete spinal cord injury in 2010, Shelby gained first-hand experience with the difficulties and indirect discrimination faced by people living with disabilities. In an effort to raise awareness and affect positive change Shelby writes about disability, social psychology, culture, etiquette, parenting and humor on her blog, thatzhowiroll.com.