On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed landmark legislation that would change the lives of the disabled nationwide. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications, and governmental activities. The ADA also establishes requirements for telecommunications relay services.
Meant to emulate the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, sex and other characteristics, the legislation defines disability “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.” Since its implementation, public facilities have added wheelchair ramps, automatic doors, curb cuts and more so that they can comply with the law.
The ADA has been life-changing for the disabled in Central New York, according to Sally Johnson, a disability advocate and employee of Enable.
“For me, advocacy has been a lifelong thing,” Johnson said. “I remember the days when we were fighting for the ADA. We formed a statewide coalition to push for the ADA. It was one of our greatest victories, having federal legislation that gave us equal rights in our society.”
Johnson, who uses a wheelchair herself, said the days before the ADA were marked with discrimination and difficulty.
“We didn’t have access to public facilities. We didn’t have access to public transit. People were truly discriminated against in terms of being able to get employment. The list goes on and on and on. It was a tough time,” she said. “The ADA changed a lot of that. In terms of public facilities, most of them are accessible. I can remember when I couldn’t get into the [Onondaga County] courthouse for common council meetings. Now they have ramps and elevators. We have a lot of public facilities and public transportation that are accessible now, and more and more people are getting employment opportunities. There’s still a lot of room to get better. But it’s been an enormous change.”
And that change is good for everyone, not just those with disabilities.
“The benefit is not just to people with disabilities, but to the entire community,” Johnson said. “It’s to seniors who use walkers and can’t walk very well. They can use ramps instead of steps. Look at people who use curb cuts — from kids on bikes to people with babies in strollers. They’re not just used for us. It’s really made a better community for all of us.”
Carol Tytler, director of communications for Enable, pointed out that the ADA’s regulations have become a part of our everyday lives.
‘I think, from my perspective on the ADA, what used to be the exception to the rule is now the standard and we don’t even think about it,” Tytler said. “I think what the ADA did is it required that our world become more accessible to all people, but it also pushed it into the mainstream and, in some ways, drove the price down. It’s more common that people are going to have those things and use those things.”
However, the fight is far from over. Johnson said the ADA still faces challenges every day. Right now, the hotel industry is challenging new federal regulations requiring that hotel pools be made handicapped-accessible.
“They’ve said it’s too expensive,” Johnson said. “Now, one part of the ADA is that, if it’s going to cause undue financial hardship, you don’t have to make the change. But that’s not the case with hotels. They’re making all kinds of excuses to avoid making their pools accessible, and they go from ridiculous — that we don’t use hotels, which is obviously untrue — to insulting and offensive — that we’ll poop in their pools, which just appalls me.”
The case is making its way through the court system right now. Johnson said she and fellow disability advocates are encouraging people to write to the hotel industry and remind executives that the disabled do, in fact, use hotels, and asking that they comply with the ADA regulations.
“How would you feel?” Johnson said. “If you became disabled, and this is what they were saying about you, how do you think you’d feel?”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.