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Guest blog post: The Americans with Disabilities Act: Three Disappointments, Three Victories by Andrew Pulrang

The Americans with Disabilities Act: Three Disappointments, Three Victories

Andrew Pulrang, Disability Thinking

I was too young, or rather too ignorant of disability issues and culture, to have been involved in advocacy for the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, my disability consciousness began less than a year before the ADA passed and became law. The law itself … its social and legal concepts … helped shape my understanding of disability in society, and even in myself. Some of my first work in the Independent Living / Disability Rights Movements was doing community training on the ADA. You could say the ADA and I grew up together.

That’s why it is hard for me to be objective about the ADA. Both my good feelings and bad are more feelings than studied conclusions. Nevertheless, what follows is the best I can manage in a review of what the ADA has done, and failed to do, over the last 19 years.

Three Disappointments

Slow Improvements in Accessibility … Our business districts and neighborhoods are obviously more accessible than they were in 1990. The question is whether they would be just as accessible without the ADA. State and local building codes, combined with the natural turnover of renovations and new construction have accomplished a lot. How many places made accessibility changes specifically because of the ADA? Strip malls and shopping centers, new theaters and stadiums are great, and would probably have been pretty great regardless. Meanwhile, old downtown business districts are largely unchanged, and bright young kids still open hipster coffee shops, used clothes stores, and food co-ops with narrow doors and stairs to get in, blissfully unaware that accessibility is even “a thing”.

Little Effect on Employment … Employment statistics of any kind are slippery and hard to compare, but I think it’s clear to everyone that the ADA didn’t revolutionize employment for people with disabilities. Some professional and management-level disabled workers probably benefitted a bit where more sophisticated Human Resource Departments were there to implement the ADA’s new non-discrimination policies. Most disabled workers rely more on the health of the general economy than on particular hiring practices, rising or falling by a few percentage points during booms and busts. The best that can be said is that the ADA mapped out what equal opportunity could look like. The baseline of employment, however, doesn’t seem to have changed.

Businesses Easily Adapted, and Not In The Good Way … Do you remember how scared businesses were of the ADA? That is, they said they were scared. I don’t think they’ve been scared of it for a long time now, if they ever really were. In the early ’90s, when I was involved in training programs on the ADA, I would have said it was great if businesses lost their fear of the ADA. Now I’m not so sure. My sense now is that most large and medium-sized businesses have found all the loopholes and weak points of the ADA, and realize that there’s really not much need to change how they do business. Small businesses can easily blow off the possibility of ADA troubles, or they assume they can.

These are fairly common complaints about the ADA, usually from disabled people who really had high hopes that the ADA would transform our lives. That was never going to happen. Yet, the ADA did accomplish some pretty remarkable things … bringing about benefits we only vaguely perceived back in 1990.

Three Victories

Accessible Buses and Paratransit … Most public buses, and many private ones, are now wheelchair accessible. Amtrak is becoming more accessible. Accessible taxi fleets are within sight. Maybe most remarkably, Paratransit has provided far more transportation than I think anyone expected, especially in rural and suburban areas where public transportation of any kind is sparse. Even though transportation is still spotty and often falls short of the mark, improved service and accessibility stemming from the ADA have raised expectations for mobility that probably can’t be lowered ever again.

The Olmstead Decision … Quite unexpectedly I think, the ADA provided a legal and conceptual lever to tackle the next big problem for people with significant disabilities … the persistence of institutionalization and the unnecessary bureaucratic barriers to disabled people who want to live as other people live. Once you understand how the issue relates to the concepts of equal service and most integrated setting, it’s hard to see how anyone could have missed how the ADA could create this ripple effect on a seemingly separate policy issue.

Shift In Understanding of Disability … All kinds of bad policies live on, and old mindsets die hard, but few people who think for a moment about disability think of it purely as a medical matter anymore. Whether or not they understand all of the terms of the field, most people “get”, on some level, that at last part of the disability experience is discrimination and physical barriers that are within society’s power to change, with or without medical miracles. That understanding owes a lot to the ADA, a law described at the time as “landmark”, related to disability, which contained nothing at all about treatments, research dollars, or support payments. It was all about civil rights and ending discrimination. For most Americans, that was revolutionary.

Unlike the gradual, arguably inevitable evolution in accessibility, these victories were not only accomplished because of the ADA, but shaped by it. The ADA provided some practical structure to what until then were fairly vague ideas and dreams.

In that sense, 24 years later, the ADA fulfilled has fulfilled expectations in ways we never expected.


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