The A.D.A., 25 Years Later

More Work Needs to Be Done to Prevent Exclusion of the Disabled

Kaaryn Gustafson is a professor of law and co-director of the Center for Law, Equality and Race (CLEaR) at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law

The Americans with Disabilities Act has made a dramatic difference for those of us who live with disabilities. But as often happens with collective wins for civil rights, after the law passed, the activist communities, the positive expressions of disabled identity and the collective energy that grew during the fight for the A.D.A. faded. Those of us with disabilities suddenly had legal rights. But we had to exercise those rights in isolation by filing individual claims with the Office of Civil Rights or by filing suits in federal courts.

Noncompliance with the mandates of the A.D.A. is routine.

Noncompliance with the mandates of the A.D.A. is routine. I use a wheelchair. In the last year I’ve checked into several recently renovated hotel rooms described as accessible online only to find that the rooms were not entirely wheelchair accessible — and sometimes unsafe. And while the A.D.A. has for 25 years made it a civil rights violation for taxi drivers to refuse service to persons with disabilities, last month I had three drivers do just that.

The A.D.A. was a start, but only a start. The unmet needs of people with disabilities extend beyond education, employment and public accommodation. Indeed, people with disabilities remain subject to high rates of violence, from sexual assaults to police shootings. One study found that women with histories of mental illness made up almost half of the women who were brought in for post-assault forensic exams.

According to The Washington Post, a quarter of the individuals killed by police shootings this year had histories of mental illness. Responding to a call for “erratic behavior” should trigger a response by individuals with training in acute mental health care but, sadly, often triggers violence by police who have had little training about disability.

People with disabilities have difficulty accessing health care, both physical and mental. Many medical providers still fail to provide wheelchair accessible exam tables and scales or sign language interpretation during office visits. Jails and prisons have become the nation’s biggest providers of mental health care.

In addition, many among us have difficulty meeting basic material needs. Those of us who get jobs and who request necessary accommodations and have them honored are a privileged minority. Statistics show that people with disabilities experience high rates of poverty and unemployment. According to the Department of Labor, the labor participation rate for people with disabilities was only 20 percent for June 2015. Those who care for family members with disabilities also experience high rates of unemployment.

The post-A.D.A. experiences of Americans with disabilities (among whom blacks are overrepresented) parallel the experiences of people of color after passage of the Civil Rights Act. For members of both groups, implementation of the federal mandates was begrudgingly slow. And resistance to change seems rooted in deep-seated fears about difference.

The A.D.A. was an important step in recognizing universal rights to dignity and inclusion among all Americans. But we have more work to do — and much of it requires a collective commitment to equality and inclusion, not just the hollow reverence we give to individual rights.

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