30th Anniversary of the ADA: Personal Reflections from Director Mark Odum on Where We Are and Where We Could Be in the Future

Today we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Each year as the calendar turns to July, I notice growing multitudes of ADA related articles and announcements to attend conferences, seminars, and webinars expounding on a plethora of accomplishments originating from this historic civil rights legislation. Many of these publications and commemorative events describe the ADA’s impact and the positive changes made in the daily lives of people with disabilities: accessible office buildings, playgrounds where all children can play, inclusive workplaces, and emerging telecommunications technology built with all users in mind. Physical and programmatic barriers of all sorts have been addressed and mitigated over the years.

From curb cuts to movie theater captions, there are oodles of accomplishments that everyone involved can point to with pride. But still, more is needed.

Even in 2020, I go into new buildings that have barriers or where accessibility seems to be an afterthought and inconveniently designed. Unemployment rates for persons with disabilities are still disproportionately higher than most other demographic groups. Limited access to medical and health related programs continues to add to the disparities in services and care.

Having incurred a spinal cord injury more than 46 years ago, I have come to see that the ADA has made most of its impact on the physical world. After all it is easier to measure the slope of a ramp or whether a screen reader provides true access and make any needed corrections or remedies. But it is much more difficult to address the perception of those without disabilities, to abolish stereotypes and level the playing field. Persons with disabilities are passed over for jobs they are qualified to do just because employers fear the cost of reasonable accommodations or worry what a health risk they might be and drive up insurance rates. How do you legislate against an employer’s unfounded fear that a person with a disability will frequently be late and call out due to health problems and therefore, not a good hire, no matter how qualified? What policy can you put in place to convince a business that I am their customer, as much as someone who can walk into their store?

It comes down to this: how do we change attitudes? Generally, I believe all people are fair-minded and want to do well by their fellow man. Yes, we all have biases and sometimes they cloud our judgment. We need to reduce if not eliminate the thoughtless discrimination.

Over the years there have been plenty of times where someone has seen my power wheelchair before they saw me and come to conclusions that were not based on what I could do but instead what they thought I could not do. I think of this as a disability tax. I am paying an extra price because I have a disability. This tax, although rarely acknowledged, is prevalent. There are examples everywhere. Since televisions were invented people who are Deaf had to pay for volume knobs and speakers they may never use or want. People with severe mobility impairments have to pay the cost of bathrooms in planes, trains, and even buses they ride, even though they may not use them. Just imagine if it was decided that nobody could use those bathrooms until everyone could. People with a lower extremity amputation have to buy shoes in pairs, another tax.

Have you ever noticed that the more personal a problem gets for people, the quicker there seems to be a solution, and the faster we get to fair and equal. Education and familiarity are keys for tearing down the shameful walls of exclusion (Thank you President George H. W. Bush). Since we can’t legislate attitudes, we must do the best we can to open the eyes and ears of the folks less familiar with disability issues. As people gain a better understanding and knowledge of everyone’s abilities and their potential for making big and small contributions in all areas of life, the ADA will be an even bigger catalyst to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.

Then we can celebrate at an even higher level.

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