Pushing Forward

Marca Bristo, President, United States International Council on Disabilities and President and CEO, Access Living

By Guest Blogger Marca Bristo, President and CEO, Access Living

Twenty-five years ago, on July 26, 1990, 2,000 people with disabilities gathered on the South Lawn of the White House for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) signing ceremony. The jubilant crowd heard President George H. W. Bush proclaim the often quoted words, “I now lift my pen to sign this Americans with Disabilities Act and say:  Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

At the time of the ADA signing, I had just given birth to my daughter, Maddy. While I was not able to be on the South Lawn with so many of my friends and colleagues, I celebrated the historic event in Chicago, where Mayor Richard M. Daley, who committed to making Chicago the most accessible city in the country, hosted a local event. On that day at the White House, in Chicago and around the country, disability advocates felt as if, finally, we had done it. We passed a landmark civil rights law that would allow people with disabilities to participate in their communities and pursue employment opportunities on a level playing field. We did what so many told us couldn’t be done.

Though we accomplished a monumental feat, nothing about passage of the law was easy. There were barriers at every step. Despite the fact that there were no curb cuts, there was no access to bathrooms, there was no interstate TTY system of communication for people who were Deaf and hard of hearing, there was no emergency captioning and employers were free to discriminate based upon disability, Congress did not believe there was a history of discrimination. Without a history of discrimination, there would be no law.

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The Beauty of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Susan Henderson, Executive Director, Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund

By Guest Blogger Susan Henderson, Executive Director, Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund

In the spring of 1977, I took a quarter off from college, quit my job and, with my best friend, bought a 1966 VW camper van to explore the United States. Before we left, we spent a warm April day (California was in a drought and Jerry Brown was governor, how odd!) practicing the manual shift on the hills of San Francisco. We figured that if we could manage the hills of San Francisco in the bus, we could manage it anywhere.

As we drove into the Civic Center, we noticed a protest – not a rare occurrence in the Bay Area, but this protest was unique because the people protesting were people with disabilities. I admit that as an abled-bodied teenager, I didn’t have a clue what the protest was about, but learned from the local news that protestors were demanding that the Carter Administration issue regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It made perfect sense and it opened my eyes to disability discrimination.

Fast forward 38 years to 2015 and we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), the glorious result of the disability community’s historic campaign to expand the protections of Section 504. In those intervening years, I acquired a disability and had the incredible fortune to go to work at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF), first as its administrative director and now as the executive director.

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Always Rolling Forward: Meet Ola, “No Boundaries” 2015 Participant

Ola, a 2015 "No Boundaries" participant, wears a red dress and poses in her wheelchair

By Carolyn VanBrocklin, Communications Specialist, Disability.gov

People notice when someone wears red. The bright shade brings to mind power, energy and leadership. The Disability.gov team certainly took note when we met Ola in her red dress. Ola is one of those remarkable people who has achieved a great deal by a young age. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) employee got hooked on politics in high school and has used that passion to fuel her many accomplishments since.

Ola grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and developed an interest in civil service as a way to hold leaders accountable. She recounted the story of when she requested a key to the school elevators because she couldn’t walk up the flights of stairs easily. After her request was denied, she wrote a letter to school board and demanded the key. When they supported her, she realized that change can indeed happen. Ola also joined the student government, chairing a committee to expand transportation funding. Her initiative successfully extended a bill to $600,000 so students could ride the bus for free.

As a transplant patient herself, Ola has an insider’s perspective on how such procedures affect patients, especially young people still in school. Drawing upon her experiences, she founded Sacred Hearts Children’s Transplant Foundation (SHCTF) to raise awareness about organ donation and create public service opportunities for young students. From there, she went on to establish Project ASCEND in 2011. The project provides civic engagement opportunities for girls from low-income families.

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The Importance of Reassignment as a Reasonable Accommodation under the ADA

Rachel M. Weisberg, Staff Attorney, Equip for Equality

By Guest Blogger Rachel M. Weisberg, Staff Attorney, Equip for Equality

On June 11, 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and United Airlines announced a landmark consent decree resolving ongoing litigation about what it means to reassign an employee as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

To understand the significance of this agreement, we must first understand why reassignment as a reasonable accommodation is so important. When Congress passed the ADA in 1990, it recognized the need for a national legal framework to protect the employment rights of people with disabilities. Employment is a hugely important part of our collective lives. In addition to a paycheck, a job can provide other benefits, such as self-esteem and a sense of belonging, and for 25 years, the ADA has helped employees with disabilities obtain and maintain employment.

Perhaps one of the most important protections for employees is the requirement that employers provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants and employees. Reasonable accommodations empower us to think creatively about how a job is performed. Sometimes just by thinking outside of the box and by engaging in the interactive process, employees and employers alike are able to identify solutions to keep an employee in the workforce. From adaptive equipment to modified schedules to restructured job duties to auxiliary aids and services, the list of possible accommodations that enable an employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of a job is endless.

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The ADA and Claiming Disability

Andrew J. Imparato, Executive Director, Association of University Centers on Disabilities

By Guest Blogger Andrew J. Imparato, Executive Director, Association of University Centers on Disabilities

This month, as we reflect on 25 years of implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is easy to focus on the letter of the law and miss the larger message of this historic legislation. For me, the greatest value of the ADA has been its role in framing disability as a natural part of the human experience and branding discrimination against children and adults with disabilities as something that is unlawful, unnatural and unnecessary.

In July of 1990, I was a brand-new lawyer trying to cope with the early stages of bipolar disorder, a condition that has stayed with me to this day. Earlier that year, as a newlywed and a visiting student at Harvard Law School, I had experienced my first serious episode of depression. Seemingly overnight, I went from being a confident, outspoken law student to an insecure, scared, unmotivated shell of my former self. With help from my wife, Betsy, and others, I made it through law school and launched a career in public interest law.

I soon found my calling as a disability advocate and I learned to think of my disability as a positive differentiator; it gave me added credibility and gravitas in my chosen profession. I was proud to be a person with a psychiatric disability who was “out” as a professional and I felt welcomed by my colleagues with a variety of disabilities in Massachusetts and beyond.

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