After considerable pressure from disability rights advocates, Congress passed and President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law in 1990. The legislation, passed in part due to activism from HIV/AIDS activists concerned about discrimination, banned discrimination on the basis of ability status in education, employment, public transportation, communication and governmental activities. Among its many provisions, for example, was a requirement to establish telecommunications relay services for the benefit of D/deaf and hard of hearing people.
More than 20 years later, the promise of access represented by the ADA still seems like a distant dream in many corners of the world. While more wheelchair ramps than ever are present at businesses, more accessible cabs are starting to fill the streets and more disabled people are finding employment (especially at government agencies), access is by no means guaranteed or protected. Part of the problem is that enforcing the ADA is up to the Department of Justice and individual disabled people filing lawsuits, and thus many entities don’t bother to comply.
Many wheelchair users, for example, who live and travel in the United States can chronicle access nightmares across the country, like struggling to navigate paratransit in a city with an inaccessible public transportation system, or waiting as scores of cabs pass by and refuse to pick them up. Meanwhile, disabled job seekers have been turned away on the basis of their disability status, while disabled students have been forced to fight for their basic right to an education. One might imagine that fundamental infrastructure issues like lack of ramps and elevators, poor spatial design and so forth would have been phased out over time as businesses built new buildings and remodeled, providing a great opportunity to get ADA compliant, but that hasn’t been the case.
The National Disability Rights Network just visited 94 Amtrak stations in 24 states and Washington, DC, finding accessibility issues in 89 of them — either Amtrak hasn’t remodeled in more than 20 years, or it didn’t consider access issues when it did. “[M]any stations did not offer ramps or elevators as an alternative to stairways, visual displays allowing people with hearing impairments to access announcements were lacking and accessible parking spaces at some stations were poorly marked, crumbling or uneven, the investigation found.”
Starting in 2010 in response to new amendments to the ADA and persisting through to this year, the hotel industry has been up in arms about an ADA requirement to have permanent pool lifts installed, claiming that it’s too onerous and will force them to close their pool facilities. Again, given that the ADA has specifically mandated access to areas like hotel pools for more than 20 years, it’s remarkable that hotels didn’t take earlier opportunities to design and retrofit with care so they’d be ready.
In New York, the allegedly accessible subway system is often a maze of broken or blocked lifts, doors and other access needs. When the Multiple Sclerosis Society invited journalists and elected officials on a tour to highlight the problem, many didn’t even bother to show up…and thus they missed the experience of being trapped underground without a lift.
Schools across the United States have violated ADA protections for students with service animals; one of the more recent cases involves Madyson Siragusa, who relies on her diabetic alert dog Duke to help her manage her condition. Her school district denied her access, claiming he would distract other students or make them anxious.
Online, services like Netflix viciously fought captioning requirements; it took a high-profile lobbying campaign led by Marlee Matlin to force online streaming services to caption their content as required by law.
It’s not just about these physical and communication access issues, which barely scratch the tip of the iceberg in terms of cases where people have been denied access to spaces they are entitled to enter or been refused communications they can actually use.
Despite outreach, education and public works campaigns to make people aware of the anti-discriminatory nature of the ADA, people are still denied access to jobs, public spaces (including schools), businesses and more, simply because they’re disabled. Restaurants, for example, have told families with disabled children to leave.
Of course, disabled people continue to face discrimination from members of the public, sometimes escalating to bullying, hate crimes and more. The ADA represents just one facet of the protections needed by the disability community, and it’s telling that even after more than 20 years, it’s still not taken seriously by many of those required to adhere to its stipulations.
Photo credit: Omer Ziv.