Toward True Equity: A Call for Further Revisions to the ADA
By Jamie Fleshman
I awoke on August 8, 2019 unaware that the day would end in a sudden disruption to my able-bodied status. I would smash a 15-year clean-driving record into tiny fragments like my humerus, and nerve damage following surgery to repair that fragmentation would leave me functionally amputated from the elbow down on my dominant arm.
Able-bodied existence in this world is fragile and impermanent. In a moment, a life—and the experience of it—can be permanently altered. I went from playing collegiate level sports to asking my mom for help in the shower. The 30 minutes it usually took me to get out the door in the morning grew to an hour, if I even bothered to leave the house at all. I had to ask my classmates for help with notetaking, as typing was now an overwhelming and tedious endeavor with one hand. With these and countless other changes, I felt the fear of falling behind in school, in the social circles of which I was an active member, and in life generally.
I am an otherwise healthy 30-year-old woman with ample support and access to resources from friends and family to aid in my functional recovery. But many thousands of Americans struggle to obtain even the most basic necessities that would help address their disability and increase their participation in our society as it is currently constructed.
How can we, as a nation, render these types of obstacles obsolete and finally ensure true equity of access, and of opportunity, for those experiencing disability in America?
The ADA: Its Accomplishments and Continuing Challenges
This July will mark the 30th anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The civil rights law was originally designed to tackle not only the aforementioned issues of pubic accessibility and services, but also the major issue of discrimination in the workplace for those with disabilities. Considered a win for disabilities rights advocates at the time, the ADA also had the opportunity to address the gaping unemployment rate divide between those with disabilities and those without. However, in light of compliance issues and narrowing court interpretations that chipped away at the law’s original intent over the course of 20 years, a revamp of the law was vitally necessary by the time Congress passed the ADA Amendment Act (ADAAA) in 2008.
Primarily intended to address the shortcomings and vague language of the original ADA, the ADAAA has now been in effect for 12 years. Although the amendment has been successful in refocusing litigation more often in favor of disabled plaintiffs,1 a great amount of work remains to be done in the areas of employment and general societal acceptance of disability.
Current Challenge: Our Military Veterans
The shifting demographic landscape in America since 2008 may guide the need for yet another iteration of the law in the near future. As one example of a unique 21st-century challenge, America has seen a dramatic rise in disability rates among veterans. Twenty years of war in the Middle East has resulted in nearly double the number of veterans claiming a disability than in any other collective era of war (41% to 25%, respectively).2 In 2018, 54% of unemployed veterans with disabilities were in the prime employment category of 25 to 54 years of age. Employment is a major topic that still pervades conversations surrounding the impact of the ADAAA. The untapped potential of disabled veterans could be an avenue to address the act’s disparities moving forward.
Emerging Challenge: Our Aging Baby Boomers
Another issue facing not only the ADAAA’s provisions but also many other facets of healthcare is the aging US population. By 2030, all baby boomers will officially be at least 65 years of age. According to the 2017 Disability Statistics Annual Report, the disability rate for Americans aged 65 years and older was 35.2%, compared to 10.6% for those aged 18 to 64 years.3 In concert with better life-preserving technologies, this statistic points to a period of time in the future where a massive proportion of the American population may be considered disabled. This new reality has the potential to put major pressure on public infrastructure and accessibility if adjustments are not considered in advance of the problem.
A New Perspective: Environment as the Key Disabling Factor
Notable author and women’s studies professor Alison Kafer addresses disability issues in her book Feminist, Queer, Crip. In describing a better approach to conceptualizing disability within a political/relational model, she writes that “the problem of disability is located in inaccessible buildings, discriminatory attitudes, and ideological systems that attribute normalcy and deviance to particular minds and bodies. The problem of disability is solved not through medical intervention or surgical normalization but through social change and political transformation.”4(p6) In other words, disability is not so much a condition that someone has, as it is a status layered on an individual by society. Their status is based on their ability to participate in a society that is physically constructed from a specific point of view.
By the logic of Kafer’s model, then, future regulatory actions should amplify the need for infrastructural changes based on the perception of environmental barriers as the actual disabling feature of an individual. It is not the veterans who come back broken or the aging adults who no longer fit into society. It is the accommodations within the workplace and in public areas that are inadequate to meet the needs of a variety of human experience and ability. It is the houses and store fronts that have been built with arbitrarily-sized doors, with one type of access versus many. It is the shared environment that is constructed on a daily basis for a certain set of abilities in mind, prioritized over others.
There is no doubt that the ADA and ADAAA have made great strides over the past 30 years toward increasing visibility and laying the groundwork to foster an equitable work environment for individuals with disabilities. However, the work is not yet finished. I look forward to a day in the future where shattering my humerus could be seen as a painful but minor inconvenience and not the removal of my access to participation in society.
- Bureau of Labor Statistices, USDL. Employment Situation of Veterans – 2018. Available at: https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/vet.pdf. Accessed [add date].
- Kafer A. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press; 2013.
- Befort S. (2013). An empirical examination of case outcomes under the ADA Amendments Act. Wash Lee Law Rev. 2013;70(4). Available at: https://scholarlycommons.law.wlu.edu/wlulr/vol70/iss4/7. Accessed [add date].
- Kraus L, Lauer E, Coleman R, Houtenville A. 2017 Disability Statistics Annual Report. Durham, NH: Institute on Disability, University of New Hampshire; 2018.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Honoring 30 Years of Civil Rights Protections
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) give civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities, similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. July 26, 2020 will mark the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990.
Under the ADAAA, disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment. The ADAAA prohibits discrimination in all areas of public life, including transportation, public spaces, employment, government programs and services, telecommunications, and businesses (including private businesses open to the public).
Protection under these federal laws is divided into a three-pronged area of coverage. It includes protections for an individual:
- Currently experiencing disability.
- With a record of disability that substantially limits a major life activity.
- Regarded as having a disability but whose disability does not substantially limit a major life activity.
The ADA National Network, which provides information, guidance, and training on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), is celebrating the act’s 30th anniversary with programs and events throughout the year and on its actual anniversary, July 26, 2020. To learn more about the ADA 2020 anniversary event, visit the adaanniversary website.
ADA Anniversary Monthly Themes—2020
The ADA National Network has chosen the following monthly themes for educational programs and celebratory events:
- January: Transportation & Telecommunications Access
- February: Voting Access
- March Brain Injury Awareness
- April: Traveling the World—Individuals with Disabilities
- May: Recreation—disAbilities at Play
- June: Countdown to ADA Anniversary
- July: Celebrate the ADA Anniversary
- August: Back-to-School Access
- September: Emergency Preparedness and Management
- October: Employment and Public Accommodations
- November: Veterans
- December: Moving Forward and Sharing Stories
ADA Information and Educational Resources
- http://www.adasoutheast.org/. Comprehensive information and updates about the ADA.
- https://www.ada.gov/index.html. The ADA’s main website.
- http://www.adalawproject.org/summary-of-the-adaaa. A plain-language summary of the amendment legislation.
- https://askjan.org. Accommodation resources for employers, employees, and job seekers.
- https://adata.org/national-product-search. Fact sheets by topic.
- https://adata.org/faq-search. FAQ search.
- https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/people.html. Health information.
- http://www.apta.org/ADA/. A resource page for physical therapists.
- https://www.ada.gov/medcare_mobility_ta/medcare_ta.pdf/. Very relevant to PTs in the clinic.
- https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/disability_main. Modifications for people with disabilities.