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disability rights

The ADA turns 30: Disability Rights are Still at Risk


The Americans with Disabilities Act hits a milestone, but health care access, job security, and equal treatment for many disabled Americans remain out of reach.



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On July 26, 1990, George H.W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) into law, declaring, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down!” Thirty years since the enactment of this landmark legislation, the United States has witnessed significant strides in achieving equality for people with disabilities. Yet, disability rights have faced unprecedented threats since Donald Trump took office. Therefore, the 2020 election will be consequential for people with disabilities—people like me.

I was born with arthrogryposis, a disability that affects my arms and legs. Before the landmark legislation was passed, there were few places I could access in my power wheelchair. I couldn’t go to a movie theater or restaurant without my parents first calling to see if they had a ramp—which these places often did not. The lack of access meant missing birthday parties with friends and dinners with family.

Fortunately, the ADA was enacted when I was eight-years-old, meaning that I am part of the “ADA generation.” I grew up with the law and, as such, the expectation that I would enjoy all of the same opportunities as my non-disabled peers. In many ways, the ADA has allowed me far greater inclusion. I was able to go to school and gain employment with the full understanding that the law was on my side.

The ADA has quite literally and figuratively opened many doors for people with disabilities. Because of the ADA, most entities that are open to the public—including restaurants, hotels, hospitals, movie theaters, schools, sporting events, and much more—are required to be fully accessible to disabled people. Businesses are prohibited from discriminating against people with disabilities and must provide reasonable accommodations (e.g., sign language interpreters) to ensure their services are usable by disabled people. Public transportation, such as busses and trains, must also be accessible. Employers, similarly, cannot discriminate against employees based on disability.

But the ADA’s mandates go beyond requiring access to public and private entities. For example, in 1999, in Olmstead v. L.C., the Supreme Court held that people with disabilities have the legal right to live in their communities rather than institutions.

The ADA has also resulted in increased public awareness of disability rights—something unmeasurable but incredibly important. While many people may not be aware of the law’s particulars, most are mindful that the ADA exists and requires access and inclusion.

Of course, the passage of the ADA was not a magic cure for eliminating the unjust treatment of people with disabilities, nor did it make elevators and ramps simply appear. Progress takes time, and we still have a long way to go until people with disabilities entirely enjoy the “equality of opportunity” we were promised when the ADA became law three decades ago.

Indeed, the experiences of people with disabilities during COVID-19 exemplifies the many inequities we still face. Earlier this month, news broke about the tragic death of Michael Hickson, a 46-year-old man from Texas. Hickson was quadriplegic and was sick with COVID-19. Against his wife’s wishes, the hospital discontinued lifesaving treatment, contending that it was “futile.” Hickson’s wife, who shared a viral audio-recording of her pleading with her husband’s doctor to continue treatment, “worried doctors were placing less value on her husband’s life because he was a Black man who was disabled,” says the Washington Post.

Regrettably, Hickson’s experiences are neither unique nor uncommon. From state policies that allow hospitals to ration health care for people with disabilities to protests against mask requirements with no regard for people with preexisting health conditions to the staggering rates of infection in group homes and nursing homes where disabled people reside, COVID-19 has highlighted the amount of ableism that still permeates our culture.

People with disabilities continue to experience disparities in nearly every facet of life. For example, people with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty and be unemployed than our non-disabled peers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people with disabilities are twice as likely as people without disabilities to live below the federal poverty level. The 2019 employment rate was equally striking: 19 percent of disabled people were employed versus 66 percent of non-disabled people, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Inequities are even more pronounced for disabled people who are also members of other marginalized communities. An estimated one-third to one-half of police killings, for example, involve disabled people of color. Research also indicates staggering rates of criminal justice system involvement among people with disabilities, especially Black disabled men. A recent study found that disabled people were 44 percent more likely than non-disabled people to be arrested by age 28. Black men with disabilities in the study were at an exceptionally high risk of arrest: 55 percent had been arrested by age 28, compared to 40 percent of white people with disabilities.

LGBTQ people with disabilities also face amplified inequalities, such as reduced access to health care, bullying in school, high rates of unemployment, and overrepresentation in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Although the ADA should address these disparities—and the countless others experienced by people with disabilities—its strength has not yet been fully realized. And while people with disabilities continue to push for greater inclusion, we also have been forced to fight the Trump administration’s constant attacks.

Early on in his presidency, Trump and the GOP vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This law has expanded health care for millions of people by preventing discrimination by health insurance companies against people with preexisting health conditions. Attacks on the ACA also included significant reductions to Medicaid, which pays for services and supports that enable disabled people to live in their communities. People with disabilities successfully fought back in large numbers—often putting their bodies on the line—to stave off Congress’ attempts to dismantle the ACA. The fate of the ACA is now in the hands of the Supreme Court, who will rule on a case next term about the law’s constitutionality.

Health care isn’t the only thing Trump and the GOP have attacked. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded over 70 guidance documents outlining rights for students with disabilities. The Social Security Administration proposed changes to disability reviews conducted for people who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), which experts believe will result in millions of people losing these crucial benefits. The Trump administration targeted immigrants with disabilities through its expansion of the “public charge rule,” which prevents people from acquiring green cards if they are determined likely to receive any government benefits (e.g., Medicaid, SSI, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Meanwhile, Congress, and in particular the GOP, made several attempts to weaken the ADA by undermining the law’s enforcement provisions.

Although disability rights historically were a bipartisan issue (e.g., the ADA was passed by a Republican president), times have changed and disabled people can no longer count on the GOP to advance our rights. In that vein, the 2020 election is of critical importance to our wellbeing.

The 2020 Democratic primaries were unprecedented in countless ways. Importantly, the primary included the most diverse roster of candidates, crossing racial, ethnic, and sexual orientation identities. But, the 2020 Democratic primaries were unique in another landmark way: nearly all candidates released comprehensive disability policy plans.

Although issued far too late, Joe Biden’s disability policy plan has been described as “surprisingly good.” Like the other Democratic candidates, Biden’s plan covers a range of issues, such as employment, housing, education, health care, and voting. Biden also vows to address police brutality toward disabled people and repeal Trump’s public charge rule.

Notably, Biden released a separate plan specific to COVID-19 and people with disabilities. Recognizing the disparities disabled people have faced because of COVID-19, Biden proposes ways to prohibit discrimination by health care providers, including the rationing of care, expand the availability of long-term services and supports so that disabled people can remain in their communities, and improve access to Medicaid. Biden’s plan also addresses paid sick leave and supports for caregivers, access to mental health care, increased housing, accessible transportation, inclusive education, and improved emergency management to address the needs of people with disabilities.

While the ADA certainly isn’t perfect, and we still have much to do to combat the countless injustices experienced by disabled people, the law has led to increased opportunities to live and participate in our communities. However, disability rights have been under growing attack by the Trump administration. As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the ADA, society must recommit to ensuring equality for people with disabilities—and that must include voting Trump out of office.

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