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June 6, 2006

Americans With Disabilities Act Transforms Lives

From: Washington File, DC - Jun 6, 2006

Disabilities act mandates reasonable accommodation for handicapped

By Michael Jay Friedman
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- While court decisions since Brown v. Board of Education and laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 assured that African-American Rosa Parks could ride in the front of the bus, they did not secure any seat for Judith Heumann. Brown found racial segregation a violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act set federal authority squarely against legal discrimination "on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin." But Heumann was a victim of polio, confined to a wheelchair, and unable to navigate her chair up the bus stairs.

“It's not my disability that handicaps me," she told the Washington Post in 1980. "It is society that handicaps me and my disabled brothers and sisters by building inaccessible schools, theaters, buses, house and on and on and on."

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 represents a national consensus to protect the full and equal civil rights of those Americans -- by Congress' count some 43 million of them in 1990 -- who suffer from physical or mental impairment.

In the United States and elsewhere, efforts were made for many years to "rehabilitate" the disabled. By the 1970s, however, many physically and developmentally challenged Americans argued instead that society should remove barriers preventing them from participating more fully in civic life. They sought full access to public and private buildings through wheelchair ramps, automatic doors and similar improvements. More broadly, the emerging disability-rights movement sought guarantees of the same fundamental rights that their predecessor in the civil rights movement had fought for and won.

A number of federal laws gradually expanded those guarantees. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 barred discrimination "under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance," while the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975 defined and guaranteed students with disabilities "a free appropriate public education."

The Americans with Disabilities Act extended these legal guarantees to private employment and access to public facilities. As adopted by Congress in 1990, it mirrors substantially the protections of the Civil Rights Act.

Title I bars employment discrimination against disabled individuals who can perform the essential functions of a job if given "reasonable accommodation" that does not create an "undue hardship" on the employer. The protection extends to job application procedures, hiring and firing, compensation, or any other term, condition, or privilege of employment.

Title II prohibits state and local governments from excluding an otherwise qualified disabled person from participating in or receiving the benefits of a public service, program or activity. Public bus transport is such a service, and the act thus spurred the widespread adoption of wheelchair-accessible bus lifts.

Title III requires places of "public accommodation" (a term defined with great specificity in the act; it includes hotels, restaurants, movie theaters and many other facilities) to assure that all new buildings and all modifications meet accessibility guidelines. It also mandates the removal of physical barriers from existing facilities when it is "readily achievable" to do so.

Title IV directs telephone companies to provide telephone relay services for speech- or hearing-impaired individuals.

Many regulations have been promulgated and court cases litigated to establish precise definitions of covered disability and reasonable accommodation. The Supreme Court has ruled that HIV-infected individuals are disabled within the act’s definition, while people whose impairments (such as nearsightedness) are correctible or treatable by medication, are not.

The United States Census Bureau reports that more than 51 million Americans -- about 18 percent of the total population -- are in some way disabled, about 32.5 million severely. The disability act thus has transformed millions of lives. From New York City, where every bus in the city transit fleet now is wheelchair accessible, to Little Rock, Arkansas, which installed nearly 1800 curb ramps during the period 1999–2004, America’s municipalities have taken the steps necessary to comply with the law's equal access requirements.

Meanwhile, the nation's disabled continue to prove their worth in the workplace. RoseAnn Ashby, a branch chief at the U.S. Department of Education, reports "I am blind and use a computer equipped with a screen reader with speech output to enable me to review and edit the work of my staff." Jonathan Parker is legally deaf, but oversees large sums of money as a fund accountant for a Portland, Maine, financial services firm. Jenni Gold was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at 6-months-old. Today she is a member of the Director's Guild of America, and chief executive officer of her own independent company.

As President George H.W. Bush predicted on signing the Americans with Disabilities Act into law, "It will ensure that people with disabilities are given the basic guarantees for which they have worked so long and so hard: independence, freedom of choice, control of their lives, the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream. ... Every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence, and freedom."

The full text of the Americans with Disabilities Act is available on the Department of Justice Web site.

For more information on U.S. policies, see Disability Rights.

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© 2006 Washington File