July 27, 2015
On July 26, 2015, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) celebrated its 25th anniversary with muted coverage in the mainstream and alternative media; indeed, perusing my Twitter feed, Alterationet.org, and Townhall.com during the past three days yielded no articles on the topic. (Hey, thought-shaping
dudes: many of us disabled people read your stuff. Give us your coverage, your opinions, your tweets; our responses might surprise you.) My first positive ADA-CONNECTED experience took place in the mid-1990s. While running a strategic planning session at the University of Michigan, I became disoriented as I wandered from room to room monitoring the discussions of two small groups. I stood there, not quite sure what to do next, my hand absently grazing the wall, when I happened to find the name of the room in Braille about five feet up on the wall to the left of the door frame. “This braille label wouldn’t have happened pre-ADA,” I thought to myself. “And now I won’t have to ask for help.”
As time passed, other ADA benefits appeared: braille labels on ATMs and doors of hotel rooms; some restaurant menus in Braille; and braille next to floor buttons in elevators, with sound cues to indicate at what floor the elevator was stopping. As time passed, the phrase “I need an accommodation” resulted in successfully negotiating ways for organizations to meet my blindness-related needs. More and more products – most notably iGadgets – incorporated speech software into their designs, making it possible for visually-impaired people to use them.
The most dramatic benefit, however, became clear in 2008, when I took a graduate-level course at the University of Missouri.
Pre-ADA, I spent almost as much time working with sometimes uncooperative professors to try to get the materials ahead of time and then getting these materials put into Braille or recorded onto cassettes than I did actually attending classes and doing homework. Post-ADA, I alerted the university’s Disability Services Office of the course I was taking and poof! All of the materials were made available in a format that I could use.
The primary failure of the ADA has been in the employment arena. Unemployment rates of the visually-impaired and others with disabilities continue to hover in the neighborhood of 70 percent, according to the Social Security Administration. Too many on-line application forms and websites remain impenetrable to the software that help people who are blind “read” information on the screens of computers and iGadgets. During the past several years, I have heard about several extremely capable
visually-impaired people either losing their jobs or having their responsibilities cut back because their employers purchased new software inaccessible to the speech software they use. And it was disheartening when a friend informed me several months ago that a well-respected leader in the nonprofit sector in Central Missouri told her that she didn’t know of any organization willing to hire a blind person.
The reasons for this unemployment problem are complex and
interconnected: unavailable, unreliable, or overcrowded public transportation; an overworked network of state vocational rehabilitation agencies set up to assist us in finding jobs; work disincentives of government programs; job-seeker foibles; and the sense that most non-disabled people, while well-meaning, don’t believe in our abilities. But I had hoped that the ADA would contribute to lowering this astoundingly high unemployment rate.
Points of light do shine, however. Perhaps, other organizations will follow the lead of Apple and Google and incorporate accessibility into their products, especially when they discover that some non-disabled people also appreciate these features. Perhaps, the undersupply of IT professionals will encourage employers to work with disability organizations and their allies to make the necessary changes so that talented people with disabilities can connect with available opportunities. Perhaps, organizations can incorporate disability more effectively into their diversity programs. Perhaps, state and federal governments can find ways to address the work disincentives of programs aimed at supporting people with disabilities. And perhaps, each of us can do a better job of focusing on the strengths instead of the limitations of others.
Happy birthday, ADA! May you continue to build on your successes and adapt to the changes happening around you.