The Progressive Media Project


July 18, 2000

The ADA, 10 years after -- a partial success
by Lisa A. Goldstein

Once upon a time, people with disabilities had few rights, just like women, African Americans and gays. Gays still dont really have rights, but thats another story.

Then, one day, something unusual happened: Politicians did a good deed. On July 26, 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Everyone lived happily ever after.

Not exactly.

As much as I'd like to believe in fairy tales, it's time to face reality. While life has improved dramatically for the disabled since the ADA, there's still a long way to go.

Before the ADA, I was forced to be more dependent due to my deafness.

Ten years ago, I had to rely on my parents to make phone calls. Since the ADA, telephone relay services for the deaf exist in every state. An operator types what hearing people say and reads aloud what deaf people type.

I was effectively excluded from public events because I couldn't follow them. Now I can request reasonable accommodation.

Yet the ADA as it stands isn't fully observed. I know this firsthand. Often when I go to a hotel, I have to go through the following exercise in futility as I ask the front-desk staff for a TTY. The exchange is easy for me as I speak and read lips, but imagine how difficult it would be for a deaf person who signs:

"Do you have a TTY?"

"A what?"

"A phone for the deaf."

"A what?"

People with disabilities can't count on the ADA being enforced. The majority of ADA-related complaints are not acted on because there are too many. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, responsible for enforcing the ADA, received more than 90,000 complaints between 1992 and 1997. There are simply not enough investigators and prosecutors to take on this load.

Furthermore, the ADA has done little to improve the employment status of people with disabilities. Since its implementation, there has actually been a decrease in employment of the disabled, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The bureau also found that the ADA has had little effect on the disproportionately low wages of disabled workers, who still earn 40 percent less than their able counterparts.

In addition, the ADA does not adequately provide for post-1990 technological developments. There is disagreement as to whether cyberspace falls under the act as "public accommodation." And movie theaters are not required by the ADA to provide closed-caption equipment because it has only become available since the act was written.

What's more, only businesses with 15 or more employees fall under the ADA. That excludes about 86 percent of businesses, according to Small Business Administration figures.

To make matters worse, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999 dismissed three lawsuits by people who were fired or denied employment due to "correctable" physical conditions such as high blood pressure and imperfect vision. The court decided that the ADA doesn't apply to these "less serious" conditions because they fail to "substantially limit a major life activity."

Furthermore, some businesses are pushing for laws that would make it harder to file an ADA lawsuit. Doing this could limit, or even remove, the ability of a person with a disability to fight discrimination. Proponents of these restrictions seem to think that we like to sit around with lawyers and immerse ourselves in bureaucracy. If this were the case, more than half the members of Congress would be disabled.

The U.S. Census Bureau says that 19.4 percent of the U.S. population has a disability. That means that the ADA affects nearly one in five Americans. Hopefully the important benefits of the ADA -- equality in the workplace and access to public accommodations -- will continue to make an independent lifestyle more of an option for those disabled Americans.

Even though the ADA hasn't been a fairy tale come true, it's important to acknowledge its accomplishments thus far, and employ perseverance and solidarity to make sure that Americans with disabilities receive full equality.

Lisa A. Goldstein is a recent graduate of the Graduate School in Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. Shes currently a reporter for CanDo.com, a Web site for people with disabilities.

Copyright 2000, Lisa A. Goldstein . Re-print or electronic distribution without permission is prohibited. Call the Progressive Media Project for information, 608-257-4626.