20th ANNIVERSARY: ADA poised to open even more doors
BY ALBERT R. HUNT • AHUNT1@BLOOMBERG.NET
This week is the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, one of the country’s landmark civil-rights measures and the signature domestic achievement of President George H. W. Bush. The ADAmandates equal opportunities for individuals with disabilities in employment, access to public facilities, transportation and telecommunications.
Although problems persist, particularly in employment, it has transformed America, improved the lives of the 50 million people with disabilities (half of them severely disabled) and served as a model for much of the rest of the world. The gains have been most visible in accessibility, with curb cuts, transportation and access to public facilities. “The ADA has changed the way Americans get around and relate to their communities,” says Andy Imparato, the president of the American Association of People with Disabilities.
Citing the landmark 1954 civil-rights school-desegregation case, Imparato says, “The ADA is our Brown v. Board of Education.” And like Brown, it’s an evolving process that takes years, decades. A look around the globe and the ADA’s impact is evident, it was a catalyst for the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an international accord that requires parties to promote equal rights for and full employment of the disabled. “The U.S. still leads the world in safeguarding the rights of its citizens with disabilities,” says Tanya Gallagher, head of the Disability Research Institute at the University of Illinois.
There remain daunting challenges in healthcare, technology and especially jobs. In the United States, the jobless rate for disabled people is officially 14.3 percent, or almost double that of able-bodied workers. Since this figure only counts those looking for jobs, the real unemployment rate for the disabled, experts say, probably exceeds 50 percent.
There are companies that have adopted a more aggressive policy for hiring employees with disabilities. Professor Peter Blanck, chairman of the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University, recently surveyed 30,000 disabled employees at 14 companies. He found that in firms labeled by employees as “disability friendly” — providing more accommodations, flexibility and less autocracy — disparities in wages, retention and workplace issues disappeared. In an interview, Blanck cited several examples of disability-friendly companies: Microsoft, Sears Roebuck and Procter & Gamble among them.
The courts, especially conservative judges, and all the way to the Supreme Court, handed down a series of anti-ADA decisions limiting these civil rights. Often, discrimination claims then were summarily dismissed. However, the last Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which overturned a number of these unfortunate court decisions, and has facilitated the legal process for people with disabilities.
The political problems haven’t disappeared. A few months ago, Rand Paul, the Republican candidate for senator in Kentucky, dismissed government efforts. “I think if you have a two-story office, and you hire someone who’s handicapped, it might be reasonable to let him have an office on the first floor rather than the government saying you have to have a $100,000 elevator,” he said.
Much of the disabilities community considers the term “handicapped” pejorative; it originated in Elizabethan England, when people with disabilities were forced to beg on the street and were given a cap for handouts. Contrary to Paul’s assertions, accessibility costs for businesses and public facilities have been comparatively low.
Like the great struggles over civil rights and race, the most determinative issue is attitudinal. “Without the ADA, ignorance about the abilities and potential of persons with disabilities would be far more pervasive,” Gallagher says. The progress since Bush signed the measure in the summer of 1990 has been notable. Moreover, auguring well for the future, there’s a generational divide, with younger people far more comfortable and accepting of those with disabilities.
Yet the most remarkable change has been for those most affected.
“The ADA has helped disabled people think about their status as a measure of civil rights and equality, not simply as a medical or social welfare policy,” Imparato says. “The ADA has given us the right to talk about our disabilities and not be ashamed.”
Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. This article was reprinted from the Miami Herald edition of July 27, 2010.
The following newspaper article is about our longtime member, Leonard Wein. He has done a remarkable amount of work as an activist for disabled access and he has taken a remarkable amount of very nasty, absurd criticism. Many kudos to our good friend, Lenny, and long may he wave!!!!!
Palm City Man Raises Ire While Increasing Access for Disabled
He has been called every name in the book. Extortionist. Pain in the butt. A more profane version of “pain in the butt.” Some critics have made cracks about Leonard Wein’s last name. You can imagine how those went over. But the western Palm City resident has not let the abuse deter him. Thirteen years after he started suing local governments and businesses over their lack of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, he’s still at it. “I have no regrets in doing what I did,” Wein told me. “And if I had to do it all over again, I would.”
Wein, who is 64, has a form of muscular dystrophy known as peroneal muscular atrophy. The disease has weakened muscles in the lower portions of his arms and legs. Some of his fingers curl inward, prohibiting him from grasping a pen or turning the knob on a faucet. When he was diagnosed in 1980, his doctor told him he would be wheelchair-bound within six years. Today, he can still manage short distances with a cane, but a motorized scooter is his mode of transport for most ventures outside his home.
I sat down with Wein this week, which marks the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, to talk about why he has devoted so much of his retirement to crusading for accessible bathrooms, parks and other facilities. In other words, to talk about the things he’s been such a pest about. Wein has single-handedly riled elected officials and business owners over his insistence the ADA be enforced. The federal law made it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities and required public facilities and businesses to accommodate people with disabilities. When it was enacted in 1990, Wein thought, “This is great. I don’t have to worry.” He figured everyone would comply with the law without a problem. Boy, was he wrong.
After he moved to Martin County 18 years ago, he set out to make things right. Wein first sued Martin County in 1997 over access to sidewalks, beaches and public restrooms. He lodged another suit in 2008 over lack of access at the Martin County Fairgrounds. In the end, the county improved access at all of the facilities — even the beaches, where special mats are now available to accommodate wheelchairs. St. Lucie County became a target in 2006 when Wein couldn’t sit near his friends at the county-owned spring training camp now known as Digital Domain Park. The county settled with him and built more accessible features. The City of Stuart got its turn in 2002, when Wein sued over public restrooms and parks. The following year, the city went a step further, passing an ordinance requiring sidewalks to remain uncluttered.
Wein says he always sends a letter or makes a few phone calls first. But when the polite approach doesn’t work, he knows he has the legal weight of the ADA behind him. He doesn’t limit his ire to governments either. He has sued restaurants and strip-mall owners. He has taken on corporate giants including Target and the mother-of-all-retailers, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. He has been party to 38 suits in Southern District of Florida alone. Just this year, Wein sued Delray Honda in Palm Beach County. He cited shortcomings including a lack of handrails and a too-high urinal.
These things seem nitpicky — until you’re the one in a wheelchair or scooter. Then they are essential to your independence. Wein doesn’t make any money off of the suits, but he hasn’t lost any either. When he wins or settles (and he always does), his attorneys fees are covered. His ultimate goal also is achieved: the disabled gain access.
Next time you stroll the sidewalks in downtown Stuart, think of Wein. If you ever find yourself in a wheelchair or on crutches, you’ll have an easier time getting around because he raised such a stink. Think of him — just don’t curse his name. He gets enough of that.
Eve Samples is a columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. This column reflects her opinion. For more on Martin County topics, follow her blog at TCPalm.com/samples. Contact her at (772) 221-4217 or firstname.lastname@example.org.