The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 marked a major victory for those living with disability and all who champion the cause of equal rights. Composed of five major tenets, the ADA is the most comprehensive piece of disability legislation ever passed in the United States. It prohibits discrimination of any sort on the basis of disability, and is targeted at providing protective access to employment, public services and accommodation, and transportation for those living with a handicap. The following is a brief breakdown of what each of the five titles in the ADA comprises:
- Title I: Prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of disability
- Title II: Requires both state and local governments to make government-sponsored programs and services accessible to individuals with disabilities
- Title III: Specifies that public accommodations must be made accessible to those with disabilities
- Title IV: Requires that telecommunication companies ensure availability of appropriate services for customers with disabilities
- Title V: Clarifies relationship between the ADA and other federal and state laws.
These regulations are necessary for the maintenance of a fair and equal society, and should be protected at all costs in order to maintain basic civil rights for those with disabilities. However, we cannot assume that simply because of the existence of the ADA that the problem of integrating people of all abilities into one harmonious society has been solved. Complacency of this nature is what allows loopholes to develop and liberties to be taken- often at the expense of the individuals the legislation intended to protect. Therefore, we must combine the legal aspect of disability protection with an increased social consciousness on what it means to be disability-friendly.
Being disability friendly is not, as one might assume, the mere compliance with ADA regulations because of litigative demand. Instead, being disability friendly means truly encompassing a spirit of universality, and making it a guiding mantra in one’s life. In this way, diversity is not just planned for and accepted, but instead, is welcomed and cherished. It is a definitive change in attitude that contributes to an entirely different social atmosphere, and one that can be easily picked up on- particularly if you are a disabled or underrepresented individual.
In society, choosing to be disability friendly can manifest in a variety of ways. On the public level, it may look like the inclusion of a ramp at the front entrance of a building and not the back. Why does this matter? While on paper ramp placement may seem irrelevant, in actuality the ramifications of this oversight are numerous and problematic. Think about it. Having a singular back entrance for people with disabilities has the potential to make that person feel very awkward and uncomfortable. They might be in the midst of a professional conversation, or attempting to head out to lunch with someone new. At the critical moment when they attempt to head towards whatever new task is at end- through entrance of the building- once again, the attention is being acutely focused on their disability instead. The questions of “How will you get in?” or “Do you need help finding the ramp” are on everyone’s mind, and once again, disability is made the central focus of the interaction, instead of the person. So although technically the building does comply with the required standards, it does not contribute to an overall disability friendly atmosphere. This in turn stunts society, and disregards the challenges that the disabled continue to face, even in a post-ADA world.
At the level of the workplace, this means making a conscious effort to employ people with disabilities. NPR recently reported that “fewer than 1 in 5 disabled adults are employed.” Additionally, CNN Money states that disabled workers earn about $9,000 less per year than non-disabled workers. This level of discrimination is occurring even despite the action taken as a result of the ADA! Employers may be promising protection when the disabled attempt to apply for jobs, when it comes down to the final interviews, it is likely that the employers are still in the very backwards mindset that sees only a disability, instead of a capable person with the potential to be a huge asset to the company.
One way to combat this sort of treatment is to increase the collective societal consciousness of what it means to have a disability, and increase the prominence of disabled persons in high profile settings, such as politics or the media. This is a simple way to increase public exposure to the concept of disabled people doing great things, without their disability getting in the way. In doing so, we transform our internal conceptualization of the capabilities of people with disabilities, and it becomes much more difficult to write them off and see them only for what they are unable to do.
This transformative thinking must start early on, with the integration of disability history into public schools across the country. If children become comfortable with the idea of disabled people being equals- and not stigmatizing disability- it becomes much easier to culture a society that is accepting and open to the idea of being disability friendly instead of just disability tolerant.