ADA at 30: Much done, much left to do

Advocates say lagging employment opportunities, physical barriers remain for people with disabilities

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The summer that the federal Americans With Disabilities Act turns 30 years old is a season of celebrating vast improvements in the lives of people with disabilities, but it is also a time to acknowledge what hasn’t changed, to watch for the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a time to have guarded optimism about creating new opportunities, advocates in the Mohawk Valley say.

Then-President George H.W. Bush signed the legislation into law in July 1990. A complex law, the ADA forbid discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. Coupled with older and younger laws, it is credited with helping adults and children with all kinds of disabilities with being able to participate more fully in community life, employment and education.

But advocates in the Mohawk Valley say its intent is not completely fulfilled. Not everything is physically accessible to everyone, choices in appropriate housing for many people are limited, transportation can be a problem particularly in rural areas, and employment opportunities are greatly limited.

Meanwhile, people with disabilities may be far more susceptible than the able-bodied population to the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic both because they are much less likely to be employed in the first place, and because many rely on publicly funded education and personal-assistance programs that allow them to more fully take part in work, school and life outside home.

“You can legislate everything you want, but if people’s opinions doesn’t change, people are still going to be discriminated against,” said Kathleen Klosner, chief program officer for Upstate Cerebral Palsy, the non-profit organization that provides services for children and adults with disabilities in five central New York counties.

Gene Hughes, a wheelchair user and quadriplegic, noted that for nearly 30 years he’s gotten up and gone to work every day just like many other people in Oneida County, and he credits the ADA. He is the director of advocacy in the Utica office of the Resource Center for Independent Living. The ADA, Hughes said, improved the physical accessibility to goods and services — the ability to get into places like businesses, restaurants, workplaces, and entertainment venues, but like other civil rights laws, it can dictate only actions.

“It legislates actions. It doesn’t legislate attitude. But it’s a law that is only providing equal access to things — goods and service. It’s never intended to give you more or better or special treatment. It’s a equalizer. I don’t think society has grasped what that concept is yet.”

Even physical accessibility is far from complete, Hughes said. Utica City Hall, for example, only recently updated its bathrooms to make them accessible to wheelchair users, and many small businesses, particularly restaurants, may have accessible entrances but not interiors or rest rooms, while audible crossing signals, crucial for the blind and visually impaired, are still rare in most places, he noted.

Housing has improved, but with older, pre-ADA stock in much of the region, options can be limited, particularly for renters, Hughes said. And while he drives, people who can’t still face transportation barriers, especially outside Rome and Utica.

More immediately, Hughes said he is worried that state budget cuts will imperial key services, particularly the Consumer Directed Personal Assistance Program. It allows participating people with disabilities to hire, train and fire personal-care assistants whose help often makes full participation in employment and community life possible. To qualify, a person has to be deemed eligible for a nursing home, which may be right where they’d go without the assistance, Hughes said.

“If those services are cut, the alternative for a lot of people currently living in the community would be a nursing home placement,” Hughes said. “Keeping somebody in the community as compared to an institutional setting is much more cost effective. It not only treats people with a little more dignity; it gives them a sense of community living.”

Loss of the program would also cost jobs for the providers of care, Hughes added.

But the biggest barrier remains employment, as it has been for decades, Hughes said.

“People use the word ‘disability’ and they automatically assume that they can’t do something, that they can’t work. And it’s been proven time and time again: People with disabilities are not only capable of doing the job, but they make a better employee most times.”

For Klosner of UCP, the ADA was a cornerstone and building block, its effect multiplied by intersection with other legislation. Among them were the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which was aimed at making sure children with disabilities, including intellectual disabilities and conditions related to autism, received a proper public education, and the 1999 Olmstead Act, which promoted replacing institutional settings with integrated community living.

While much remains to be done, it’s important, Klosner said, to remember how much has changed, from curb cuts to accessible buses and improved social visibility of people with all kinds of disabilities.

“I think we’re in a much better place for people with disabilities even to the little things around acceptability in the community. Curb cutouts, widening of doorways for people who use wheelchairs — that’s something now that’ s more a matter of course of our life, versus how it was 30 years ago. You couldn’t get in any place 30 years ago if you used a wheelchair; you were just significantly limited, and today you’re really aren’t. Now, are there places where there’s limitations still? Absolutely. But it’s nowhere where i was 30 years ago.”

More immediately, COVID may have a silver lining in that it seems to have promoted acceptability of working from home, which can help people with disabilities, Klosner said. But, like Hughes, she said she worries that state funding cuts imperil programs like day habilitation, employment preparation for youth with disabilities, and employment-related support.

“If those programs are cut, that’s going to limit the access that kids have to getting those supports that are going to help them longterm as they hit their transition age and adult. There’s been a broad array of day services available, from day habilitation to prevocational, supported employment, more competitive employment. All of those buckets of funding come through New York state and the federal government and will be at risk with budget cuts. … It touches everybody but it will hit people with disabilities that much harder because they may not be able to get the support they need in order to help them be the most independent that they could be. and in some cases live independently.”

For John Robinson, whose legs end at about his knees and both arms above the elbows, a clear improvement post-ADA is greatly increased inclusion of people with disabilities in schools, particularly in the early grades. However, for the managing partner, CEO and founder of the Albany company Our Ability, the good falls apart as people approach adulthood and employment.

The unemployment rate of people with disabilities is acknowledged to be much higher than that of the general population, but how much depends on how the terms are defined. Robinson said that when considered as a share of people with disabilities who are in the workforce, the unemployment rate approaches 70%.

“When people with disabilities apply for jobs, we’re turned away. We’re 70% unemployed,” Robinson said. “The fact that we’ve remained at 70% unemployment, that four out of five people haven’t had a job in the last 13 months so they’re out of the workforce technically, that means to me there’s a bigger problem.”

Robinson has helped form a coalition behind state legislation that would require state contractors and recipients of state economic-development grants to set aside 7% of jobs for people with disabilities. He likens it to rules of the U.S. Small Business Administration that promote businesses owned by women and minority groups.

The proposal is a state-level analogue to a federal law that in 2014 required federal contractors or subcontractors to have 7% of their workforces be people with disabilities. At his company, which provides inclusive workforce and employment consulting, mentoring, workshops, keynotes and seminars on disability and diversity, the phone was ringing off the hook. “Then the new administration comes in and it — there’s no emphasis on it, let’s put it that way.”

At least one downstate Assembly member has joined the push in Albany, Robinson said, and the hope is it will get traction next legislative year starting in January. He describes it as a market-driven, conservative way to promote hiring people with disabilities, which will then spiral.

“We’re not asking for a handout. But what we are asking for is an opportunity to get up and go to work,” Robinson said.

“The more a business hires individuals with disabilities and sees that they last longer in their position, that they show up on time more, that they call in sick less, you know that they’re going to be ready to employ the next person. The businesses that we work with that do employee individuals with disabilities, they’re ready to hire more.”

“What I’m saying sounds more liberal, maybe, to some. But truthfully, it’s a conservative idea when you think about it. We’re trying to create employment, not handouts.”

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