Progress, setbacks in decade of disabilities law

WASHINGTON - Going to the doctor always was a hassle for Kelby Brick. Just to get his ailments diagnosed, Brick, who was born deaf, would have to wait for his doctor to scribble questions on paper.

That changed July 26, 1990, when President Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act, the landmark law to advance the rights of people with disabilities.

Now, Brick's doctor has a sign-language interpreter on hand to provide better communication with the Greenbelt, Md., attorney.

''It (the ADA) has made society more accessible,'' Brick said in a recent interview. ''I and my deaf and hard-of-hearing friends are becoming attorneys, doctors, engineers, scientists and business executives.''

This week, as the 10th anniversary of the disabilities law is observed, many are reflecting on how it has changed the face of America, even amid numerous court challenges.

Many of the changes are so common they have become part of the woodwork: Parking lots at shopping malls have reserved spots for the disabled, bathrooms are often equipped for wheelchair access, elevators feature braille floor numbers or audio assistance.

Other changes are more subtle, but they, too, are changing the lives of the disabled.

On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission ordered telecommunication carriers to install 711 as a universal dialing code to contact special operators to relay messages between people with speech or hearing disabilities and other callers.

Such services already allow Brick to phone home from the mall and let his wife know he will be late for dinner. When he awakes in the morning, he can watch television with the help of closed captioning.

Even his city government is more accessible. Brick can now attend a town meeting with ease because the ADA ensures an interpreter will be there to communicate with him.

''I just see people with disabilities more and more,'' said Curt Decker, executive director of the National Association of Protection Advocacy Systems and one of those who worked on passage of the law. ''Because the malls are accessible and parking places are accessible, ... people are out.''

Just last weekend, runner Marla Runyan became the first blind athlete to qualify for a U.S. Olympic team. Theresa Uchytil, the current Miss Iowa, was born without a left hand and has adopted the slogan: ''Americans with disabilities, think ability.''

''We have more standing than we used to,'' said Marca Bristo, chairwoman of the National Council on Disability, an independent agency that advises Congress and the president on disability policy. ''We are taken more seriously.''

But the disabilities law also has suffered major setbacks.

Last year, the Supreme Court narrowed significantly whom the 1990 law covers, ruling that people with physical impairments that can be treated with medication or devices such as eyeglasses or hearing aids generally are not protected.

Next year, the justices are expected to decide whether state employees can sue states in federal courts under ADA, a ruling that could significantly strengthen or weaken the law.

Legal experts have said the high court's decision could be sweeping enough to affect all ADA lawsuits against state governments, not just those filed by public employees.

''We're nervous,'' said Bristo, who was paralyzed in a 1977 diving accident. ''We, like people in the civil rights community, understand that states' rights is really code language in civil rights for Jim Crow policy.''

Despite anecdotal evidence of improvements, the council said in a report last month that weak enforcement has allowed ''the destructive effects of discrimination to continue without sufficient challenge in some quarters.''

Quantitatively, results are mixed.

People with disabilities are still much more likely to live in poverty, with household incomes less than $15,000, according to a Harris poll last month commissioned by the National Organization on Disability, an advocacy group. But a lot fewer of them are than before. In 1986, 51 percent of the disabled lived in poverty-level households compared with 29 percent this year, the poll found.

The poll found less progress in the job market. While 81 percent of working-age people without disabilities held part- or full-time jobs, according to the poll, only 32 percent of the disabled did. That is fewer than in 1986, when 34 percent of the disabled people said they had jobs.

''It's pretty disturbing to see young people making the transition from school to benefit programs,'' said Jennifer Jones, a 26-year-old advocate who serves on a disability council for Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles. ''I've got a group of friends who graduated from prestigious universities and cannot get jobs. Discrimination is so subtle.''


On the Net: National Council on Disability site:

Justice Department ADA site:


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment