Stacy Ellingen

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Stacy’s Journal: The 27th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act: How Far We’ve Come, yet More Work is Needed

2017-08-07
By: Stacy Ellingen
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Most people don’t think twice about stepping off a sidewalk curb or running up a flight of stairs to get to their favorite restaurant.  People normally don’t think about things like making calls to companies or being able to use public transportation either.  Tasks such as these seem simple to most Americans.  However, for people who have disabilities, being able to accomplish these things is a sign of major progress.

July marked the 27th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The Act which became law in 1990 which is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. Some of the things it does include: it ensures that people with disabilities have the same employment opportunities and benefits that those without disabilities have and that employers provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, it requires that all public programs, places, and events are accessible to those who have disabilities, and it prohibits places of public accommodation (hotels, restaurants, stores, doctor’s offices, etc) from discriminating against people with disabilities.  In addition, the law requires telephone and Internet companies to provide a nationwide system of interstate and intrastate telecommunications relay services that allows individuals with hearing and speech disabilities to communicate over the telephone.  Among many other things, it also requires that public transportation be accessible to everyone.

Another significant law for people with disabilities was also redone and renamed in 1990. Previously known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (until 1990), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a piece of legislation that ensures students with a disability are provided with Free Appropriate Public Education that is tailored to their individual needs.  In short, the goal of IDEA is to provide children with disabilities the same opportunity for education as those students who do not have a disability. Some of the elements it includes are Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), Least Restrictive Environment, and Transition Services.  Among others, these components allow students with disabilities to receive education just like their peers do.  Public schools have to provide support and services to students with disabilities to meet their educational needs. Today, more than half of children with disabilities are in general education classrooms for most of the school day.

Fortunately, for me, I was born at a pretty opportune time as far as accessibility is concerned. I was just five years old when the ADA took effect, so I really don’t have much recollection of what things were like previously.  Same goes for the IDEA.  The first version of it took effective in 1975, but I think students with disabilities were still pretty segregated back then.  It disheartens me to think that there were so many people with disabilities that were left behind before these laws took effect.  Society lost out on millions of Americans with great potential.  It truly breaks my heart to think about all of the children who were institutionalized all of their lives just because they had some sort of a disability.  Children weren’t the only ones effected either.  Millions of adults with disabilities lost out on the opportunity to lead successful and productive lives because support wasn’t available.

Personally, I’ve greatly benefited from the IDEA and the ADA.  Thanks to the IDEA, starting in Kindergarten, I was able receive the services and support I needed to be able to be in all regular education classes with my peers.  I was then able to receive vocational rehabilitation services which provided me with the support I needed to earn a college degree and find employment.  The ADA allows me to be able to go almost everywhere I want/need to go.  It also protects me from getting discriminated against because of my disability.

Having said that, I believe that there’s a lot that should be done with the ADA.  Under the law, when businesses add on or remodel, they have to make the entire building accessible; however, as I recently found out, there are some stipulations to the rule.  A popular restaurant in my hometown recently added a rooftop deck.  I was excited because people were saying how cool it was; I figured that since it was an add-on they had to have put in an elevator to make it accessible.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.  Since they serve the same food and “have the same décor” inside the restaurant (which is accessible), they don’t have to make the upper deck accessible.  To me, that’s unfair.  A rooftop deck obviously has a different atmosphere than an inside of a restaurant.  Another thing that really irritates me is that many older businesses choose not to remodel or add-on just because it’s too expensive to bring the building up to code.  While I understand it from the economic standpoint, I also believe it’s time to put some time stipulations on those businesses.  Airline regulations are another topic that should be looked at and improved.  Everything from check-in desks, to security, to plane accessibility could vastly be improved in my opinion.

So, while laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act have immensely improved lives for people with disabilities, there is a lot that still needs to be done.   A lot of progress has been made in the last 50 years; I’m looking forward to seeing what will be done in the next 50 years!

***The views expressed here are strictly those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of InControl Wisconsin, the Network or any of our sponsors.  

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