Twenty-two years ago, historic and liberating legislation, comprehensive in scope, was enacted as the culmination of decades of work by activists, politicians, and professionals. Clearly a bipartisan effort, although disproportionately moved forward by Democrats, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law on July 26, 1990 by Pres. George H. W. Bush. Doors were opened for American citizens living with disabilities that had been not only literally closed, but effectively locked, in virtually every imaginable aspect of life, from employment and public accommodations to housing and health care.
Implementation was slow and spotty at first, and often required lengthy and costly litigation to enforce. Activists have remained vigilant and continue to work toward realizing its promise of equal rights, access, and opportunities for all of our citizens regardless of their health or how they have adapted to physical or mental limitations. I've had reason to think about the ADA again in a particular way this week. In the absence of our scheduled author, for this week's KosAbility, newinfluence, who has been called away for medical tests of her own, I decided it might be a good time for us to revisit the ADA. I'll start with a few experiences, thoughts and links across the fold, and then I'd like to read some of yours.
KosAbility is a community diary series posted at 5 PM ET every Sunday and Wednesday by volunteer diarists. This is a gathering place for people who are living with disabilities, who love someone with a disability, or who want to know more about the issues surrounding this topic. There are two parts to each diary. First, a volunteer diarist will offer their specific knowledge and insight about a topic they know intimately. Then, readers are invited to comment on what they've read and/or ask general questions about disabilities, share something they've learned, tell bad jokes, post photos, or rage about the unfairness of their situation. Our only rule is to be kind; trolls will be spayed or neutered.
As many of you may know, I am currently occupied with the preparation phase for the November 1 opening of a local church-related non-profit. We will be primarily serving a lower-income population, a category which, unfortunately, still includes a disproportionate number of persons living with disabilities. While churches and church-controlled institutions are specifically exempted from the ADA's requirements unless receiving federal funds, we obviously are committed to complying voluntarily. I mean, duh!
While still in the site selection phase of our project, I was astounded by the fact that none of the available commercial spaces in our downtown core were ADA compliant. That's right, not one! Most did not even have fully accessible entrances. Where we ultimately ended up is a complex divided into separate offices and retail spaces. There's a central "courtyard," and multiple shared spaces. Thankfully, the main exterior entrance meets ADA standards, but the public restrooms and secondary emergency exit do not.
During the lease negotiations, I acknowledged that modifications necessary for compliance within our leased space were our responsibility: a few doors need to be widened, some build-ins removed to provide room for wheelchairs or walkers, etc. Anything in the common areas, however, are the building owner's responsibility, and his remaining in violation of the law in that regard was a deal-breaker for us. The activist in me wanted to be strident and insistent. Lease negotiations, however, don't work that way. Not, at least, if you actually want to get the place, get it at a favorable price, and start off a long-term business relationship on an amicable basis.
So, somehow, I mustered up a level of diplomacy which is not characteristic of me in matters about which I am so passionate. In fact, equality issues are among the biggest of my "biggies." But, I managed to avoid implying too specifically that I thought the guy was a scoff-law. He was, of course, but explaining in detail to him the needs of those we were intending to serve and how easy and inexpensive it was to accommodate those needs seemed the better approach. It worked. It just as easily could have failed, so, "Phew!"
The point, though, kept coming back to me. It's been twenty-plus years that the law has been in place, and has been in business continuously during that period, and yet he was not only woefully ignorant of his responsibilities, and resistant to the few details of which he was aware. Community education efforts had clearly been insufficient, especially given that he was hardly alone in the local business community. Further, the building inspector who had signed off on the place when it was renovated apparently ignored the ADA altogether, as well. So, enforcement also failed.
In a perfect society, governmental agencies with jurisdiction over administration and enforcement of the statute should shoulder the full burden of both public education and making sure compliance is the rule rather than the exception. Rather than hold our breath for that to happen, we need to: (1) elect public servants who will fully fund education and enforcement (can you spell, "Democrat?"), (2) stay organized so that our voices are heard above the din of the corporate interests who don't want accessibility to eat into their profits, and (3) arm ourselves with information which we can share whenever we see ADA non-compliance.
Here's a couple of places online you might want to check out in regard to all three:
ADA Network - Community education site specific to the ADA, including fact sheets which can be downloaded and printed as hand-outs or presentation exhibits.
EEOC Fact Sheet - The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's info for employers regarding ADA compliance.
U.S. Access Board - Federal agency website with tons of info on all accessibility laws, not just the ADA.
And, once again, I'm going to shamelessly promote my number one go-to source for disability activism, including the ADA:
American Association of People with Disabilities - I've been at this a long time, but I never fail to learn something from a visit to their website, or from reading their newsletters and bulletins. I get every nickel out of my membership contribution, and then some.
Now, I'd really like to hear about your thoughts on the ADA, experiences you may have had relating to it, and any resources you have found that assist you in ADA-related issues, or disability activism in general.