Editor’s note: This is the second in a new series of columns by local writers dedicated to disability awareness issues. Look for these columns on the first and third Sunday of the month and send questions or comments to email@example.com
A recent letter to the editor charged The Chapel Hill News with ignoring people with disabilities in its coverage and resulted in an invitation from the paper seeking content from interested persons. I am disabled as the result of an injury, and my perspectives have evolved through experience. What became clear early is how working together can grow opportunity.
This summer marked the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA or Act), a monumental civil rights law for a historically marginalized segment of the American population.
The year was 1990 and the Act was overwhelmingly passed with bipartisan support in both houses of Congress (Senate – 44 Democrats and 32 Republicans; House – 403-20). All of North Carolina’s House members, Democrat and Republican, voted in favor. At the signing ceremony, Republican President George H.W. Bush stated: “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come down.”
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Yes, there was once a time when parties worked together to reach compromise in the public interest. Sadly, it is very possible the ADA would not pass in the current Congress. In fact, in 2012 and 2014, Senate Republicans blocked a vote on an international treaty based on the ADA which would extend similar rights to people with disabilities around the world.
What are civil rights? Simply, the rights of individuals to be treated equally, free from discrimination, in all aspects of society.
Most successfully, the ADA has altered the built landscape of America. Curb cuts, ramps, and flat thresholds now provide access to restaurants, stores, businesses and other entities to people who use wheelchairs or have mobility impairments. Perhaps surprising to policymakers, these changes have been embraced by the general public for strollers, briefcases, skateboards, and bikes, among other uses. Parks, entertainment venues, and sports stadiums have also made changes to trails, programs, and seating to equalize opportunities for all visitors, individually or to join friends and family where they had previously been excluded.
People with vision and hearing impairments now participate through sign language interpreters, descriptive services at museums and entertainment performances, and telephone relay and TTY services to connect with business associates, friends, and family. Service animals have opened the world to many with hidden disabilities. Public transportation options have improved and, hey, self-driving cars seem just around the corner!
While much has been accomplished, many barriers remain to full inclusion. And the ADA has failed in one of its key goals: improving employment opportunities.
The Act is not an affirmative action law requiring employers to hire people with disabilities. Still many of us were excited that the ADA explicitly prohibited discrimination against qualified applicants with disabilities able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation.
Significant rates of unemployment have persisted for decades among people with disabilities, particularly people with significant disabilities. The majority want to work and have been bitterly disappointed. Many employers are simply unable to see past the disability and/or lack the vision or courage to give an opportunity to a qualified person who could perform a job well, just differently. Attitudinal barriers are difficult to change despite multiple studies demonstrating that most accommodations are minor and that these employees are loyal, morale builders who become assets to the bottom line.
Since relocating to Chapel Hill from Indianapolis six years ago, I have been pleased with the degree of the town’s compliance with much of the Act and its willingness to work with advocates to address disability-related concerns. Compromise is alive and well in Chapel Hill, consistent with its progressive values.
Janna J. Shisler is an attorney and disability rights advocate. Contact her in c/o The Chapel Hill News at firstname.lastname@example.org
Disability Advocacy Conference
Are you a person with a physical, learning, mental, or developmental disability? Do you have a relationship with someone who has a disability? Are you interested in education, guardianship, community inclusion, or other civil rights issues related to disability? Then mark your calendars for Disability Rights North Carolina’s Third Annual Disability Advocacy Conference on April 20 at The Friday Center. Standard registration fees are $125/person. Registration remains open until April 18 with CLE and other continuing education credits available. More information on the conference can be found at http://www.disabilityrightsnc.org/conference-2016.