Today is a big day for people with disabilities. Today, the Americans with Disabilities Act kicks into high gear.
If you operate any business or service that is open to the public, starting today the Americans with Disabilities Act means you. The Department of Justice figures they have given you enough time.
The civil rights movement for people with disabilities followed the efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to recognize the rights of women and the rights minorities. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 mandated that agencies and programs that are government funded had to be accessible to people with disabilities.
Starting in the early 1970s, accessible was defined as not only being able to get up the stairs and in the doors but also to share the same experiences that people who don’t have disabilities are able to enjoy. After the Rehab Act of 1973, we started seeing more accessible parking spaces and bathrooms, but people with disabilities continued to be left out of many of the day-to-day opportunities that are guaranteed to all of us.
One of the responses to that early legislation was an increase in the availability of special classes or programs held in accessible buildings but still separate from the general public. I can remember volunteering for a bowling program when I was in college that was targeted for people with disabilities. The message seemed to be that if you had a disability — regardless of whether your disability was physical, emotional or developmental — this was where you should bowl. Participate with your friends or family in a regular program?
Not so much.
Think about this. What is your biggest weakness? What is one thing that you can’t do? What if we decided that everything you do including school, work, going to the gym, vacationing, etc. had to be done with other people who can’t do something too. Regardless of age or gender or interest or ability, the tendency was to lump you in with other people based on the fact that you all can’t do something.
Separate but definitely not equal. A 25-year-old Marine who lost his leg in an explosion in Iraq is probably not going to be interested in golf or tennis lessons with children with developmental disabilities. A hotel guest who needs a room where the lights flash if the phone rings or the fire alarm goes off may not need a bathroom with a roll-in shower.
The result was frustration and anger from a very large segment of our population who didn’t – and don’t - want to have the rest of us focus on what they can’t do. One of the stereotypes of people with disabilities is that they are angry at the world and unpleasant to be around. While that is largely a myth, it is easy to see how being shut out from the world would make someone short-tempered. People with disabilities merely want to have access to work, play and to the basics to quality of life that the rest of us take for granted.
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act – also called the ADA - mandated that people with disabilities be given the same opportunities that people who don’t have disabilities enjoy in all aspects of life. The intent of the 1990 version of the ADA was to expand the mandate to private entities in addition to those services that are federally funded. The goal was to open all programs and services in the United States to people with disabilities.
Employment. Transportation. Communication. Buildings and facilities. What happens in those buildings and facilities. The goal of the ADA was to create a barrier-free environment for all.
It’s been 20 years, and we still have a long way to go.
In 2009, the Americans with Disabilities Act was amended to expand the definitions of who and what are considered to be disabilities but also to establish greater enforcement by the Department of Justice. Legislators and advocates for people with disability believe that many of the court cases since 1990 have unwarranted limits to the scope of the early legislation.
The new standards serve to expand that scope of inclusion and to finally make sure that people with disabilities have equal rights in everything. The Access Board of the Department of Justice will no longer just wait for someone to file a complaint if it can’t get in your door or one of your employees says, “We can’t help you.”
The DOJ will begin enforcement and fines through random access audits and customer complaints when your business or service is inaccessible. The new standards are available at www.ada.gov, and with specifications on how to assist a customer calling a hotel to make a reservation to mandatory swimming pool access equipment, to name just a few.
The new standards go into effect today, March 15, 2012.
Most people with disabilities don’t want extra services or privileges – they just want the same opportunities that are offered to everyone. Civil rights and the ADA guarantee equal access for everyone.
Today is a big day for people with disabilities. No more excuses. No more barriers. Accessibility and inclusion is what it’s all about.