The ADA and Me
By Jason Harris, Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University
I feel lucky that I am part of the ADA generation. I was born in 1988, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in July of 1990. This year we are celebrating the 30thanniversary of this life-changing and monumental legislation. The ADA has been such an important factor in my own life in ways I am still learning about.
The ADA is More Than Curb Cuts
I had no idea what the ADA was until I took a college class in Disability Culture and Equity. Before then, I thought the ADA meant little more than “handicapped” parking spots, ramps, and curb cuts. It was something that affected other people with disabilities but not a person like me with autism. Some people see the ADA as an historical or cultural achievement that gives civil rights protections to people with disabilities. Many people with and without disabilities are as ignorant as I was of the direct impact that the ADA has on the lives of Americans with disabilities.
I remember the powerful images of protestors scaling the stairs of the U.S. Capitol, demanding that Congress pass ADA legislation. However, for me the ADA was not necessarily about the legislation and its everyday impact or programmatic impact. That was not something I learned about until I took a class on the ADA in graduate school; I learned about the ADA, what it does, and its implications for persons with disabilities and society. I continue to learn how it has impacted my life and how it can help me in the future.
Success in College
One life-changing affect that the ADA had on my life was receiving accommodations in college and graduate school because I have autism. Reasonable accommodation is a process that is protected by the ADA. In college and graduate school, I used many different types of accommodations to make sure I could succeed in the classroom. I had extended time, notetakers, the ability to use my computer in the classroom since I have a hard time with handwriting, and I used Kurzweil, an audio software program that reads your textbooks to you. One of the reasons I chose the College of Mount St. Joseph as an undergraduate was because of the disability services they offered, and at the time it was one of the best schools for people with learning disabilities. Because disability rights are important to me, I earned a graduate degree in Disabilities Studies, which takes a cultural view of disabilities and the ADA, such as learning about the importance of universal design beyond basic compliance with the ADA.
My need for accommodations became even more important in graduate school. I received Disability Services at Syracuse University, and I didn’t need a letter to prove that I needed services. The accommodations I needed were available to me, but also to everyone in the classroom. This process made me more aware of the few classes I had outside my program and how necessary the accommodations were. It was interesting to realize at both schools that the idea of Disability Services mostly pertained to the classroom or school-run events. Examples of accommodations available at Syracuse that they didn’t have at my undergraduate school included CART, sign language interpreters, service animals and emotional support animals, and during my final year, a wheelchair accessible van to transport students to and from classes. The van service was the only accommodation provided outside the classroom. The availability of ADA accommodations beyond the classroom was important because I worked on campus as well.
A Job with the Supports I Need
The ADA has also had a big impact on my ability to get and keep a job. Title I of the ADA covers employment rights for qualified workers with disabilities. However, despite the fact that it’s been 30 years since the ADA became a law, unemployment is the highest and work force participation is still the lowest among people with disabilities, when compared to other minorities. As some would say, people with disabilities are the last to get hired when times are good and the first to get fired when we hit rocky times. For those like me who have a job, the ADA provides important legal protection. It allows me to get the accommodations and modifications I need to be able to do my job and do it well. I have been lucky to work primarily in the disability rights field, so I usually receive job accommodations by asking for them. Even then, I have to know what I need and advocate for myself to insure that my disability-related needs are met. For example, at work I use reading machines, and I receive personal support with executive functioning and planning work-related tasks.
My Life in My Community
Because of the ADA I have a job that is integrated with the community where I live. Unfortunately, in America today, many people with disabilities remain isolated at home or live in institutions. If they have a “job” they might be hidden away from society in a sheltered workshop. However, this scenario is changing as disability advocates continue fighting for our rights to live independently without these outdated laws and policies. Community integration for people with disabilities is our legal right because of Title II of the ADA and the Olmstead Supreme Court decision of 1999, which marked its 21st anniversary in June 2020. Title II of the ADA requires that state and local governments offer equal services for people with disabilities. The Olmstead decision said states must stop isolating people with disabilities in institutions. (This is called “institutional bias.”) Instead states must develop policies and programs that enable people with disabilities to live in the community and receive the services and supports they need to live outside institutions.
The Olmstead decision is important to me, because in the past someone like me with autism or another significant disability may have been institutionalized or had trouble living successfully in the community unless we have access to services and supports. Unfortunately, these state systems are not perfect; I had to leave New York because I am not eligible for long-term support services under New York state guidelines. The states have different rules for providing services under the Olmstead law, so I moved to Ohio where I get in-home care to help me keep my own place and hire staff that help me integrate into the community and be socially active. The Olmstead decision and the ADA directly impact my ability to have a good quality life, and just as important, to have and be able to keep a job.
Worldwide Impact of the ADA
The ADA was and still is an amazing piece of legislation that gave people with disabilities the rights they deserved and had been previously denied. I am lucky to be a part of the ADA generation, and I never really lived in a world without the ADA. The ADA is often thought of as a law protecting people with disabilities from discrimination and it is also foundation of the disability rights movement, both here and around the world. Thanks to the ADA, society’s understanding of disability has changed over the last 30 years and the law is a model for other countries.
We know that the world is not perfect. We know that 30 years after the ADA became law there are still employers, businesses, governments, and other entities that are not always compliant with the ADA. In an effort to increase ADA compliance, in 2008 Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), which expanded and clarified the definition of disability. One reason disability advocates and Congress supported the ADAAA was because it helped reduce lawsuits and confusion about what is a disability and who is covered by the ADA. The new law made understanding ADA compliance a bit easier.
The ADA is important tool for removing the physical and societal limitations imposed on people with disabilities. As we move forward, disability rights advocates are working to develop other laws and policies to make our world more inclusive, promote equal opportunity, and reduce discrimination. I hope new laws include more oversight to make sure that employers, businesses, governments, and other entities comply with the ADA guidelines and also support the needs of employers and small businesses. It is also important to update legislation to ensure access around sensory issues, expand on home and community-based services, and improve inclusion and integration for people with disabilities. These positive steps will make the ADA even stronger. Let’s all remember, it is important to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of this groundbreaking legislation and the hard work done by people with disabilities and their allies.
Jason Harris was a Project Coordinator and Research Associate with Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University. He holds a master’s degree in Cultural Foundations of Education and a Certificate of Advanced Disability Studies from Syracuse University. He is a person who is autistic, and his work focuses on issues related to supported decision making. Learn more about Jason on his website, Jason’s Connection.