On Monday, July 26, 2020 the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 turns 30. This is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on a disability. It affords similar protections against discrimination to Americans with disabilities as did the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which made discrimination based on race, religion, sex and national origin illegal. It also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities as well as requirements for accessibility.
Having a law creates the framework to ensure that we have rights, but enforcement and actual practices are another thing. When I was on the board of Access Wilmington (the mayor of Wilmington Delaware’s committee on accessibility) 1988 – 2000, I was very excited when the ADA was passed. Then the reality became apparent: it was not funded. Our committee thought that it was going to be great that curb cuts would be installed and buildings would become accessible. Without the funding this didn’t happen quickly or without a great deal of resistance.
The city had not budgeted money for curb cuts, but the members of the committee went to the large employers in the city of Wilmington and influenced them to put in the curb cuts near their businesses and help fund other locations. Accessibility to buildings was another issue because it only covered new construction and renovations. Even new buildings with professional architects had difficulty getting it right. Our committee toured a high profile building before it opened to the public and it was outstanding. However, one of our members in a power wheelchair went to look at the “handicapped” stall and couldn’t get in and close the door. It was great if you had a manually operated chair, but not large enough for the larger power chairs.
I don’t think all discrimination or decisions that seem discriminatory are the result of willful actions. People know what they know and don’t know what they don’t know. The architect didn’t know about the size differences between the types of wheelchairs. The committee was also asked to review accessibility issue for First Night Wilmington. We found that the sites that were listed as accessible weren’t all accessible. When we talked to the owners and managers of these sites, they would tell us that they thought it was OK because it was only one or two steps. One of our members insisted we bring an extra manual chair on these inspections to allow the person in charge to try and navigate those steps. That is only one example of someone not aware of what it means to be physically disabled.
There are many different disabilities that affect people differently and it really is impossible for people to add value without direct knowledge of that disability. My suggestion is that we take the time to interact with individuals and try to see things from their perspective. I know we can’t fix everything that we encounter, but if we look, ask questions listen and remain open to the information we discover. maybe we can add value to someone else’s life. Happy 30th to the ADA.