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Americans with Disability Act Turns 15

On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. The legislation -- hailed as a major civil rights victory for disabled Americans -- initiated greater access to services, public places and jobs.

The ADA ushered in a new era for people with disabilities. Andrew Imparato, President and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, says the law forced decision-makers to think in a new way. "That disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way should limit a person's ability and right to make choices, pursue meaningful careers and live independently," he says. "That policy was a revolutionary policy when you hold it up against 200 years of segregation, paternalism and exclusion of people with disabilities in this country."

Among other regulations, the ADA mandates that public facilities be accessible to anyone with a disability. Ramps into buildings, curb cuts in sidewalks and automatic power doors are now commonplace. Wheelchair users ride city buses and wheel freely into specially designed bathrooms.

Andrew Imparato says even making a phone call has changed. "If you are a deaf person and want to order a pizza," he says, "it is a lot easier to do that post ADA, because the ADA required every state to have a relay system so that you could text [a message] to a relay operator what you wanted. The relay operator would call the pizza place, order the pizza for you and you can communicate with the world in a way that was much more difficult to do before the ADA."

John Kemp, 55, works at his desk at a law firm in Washington. The attorney helps business and government comply with ADA regulations. He has a personal interest in the field. He was born without arms and legs. He walks on prosthetic legs and his mechanical arms have metal clamps that help him grasp papers and work on a computer. He says, as a kid, he was told he could accomplish anything, and he never stopped believing that.

"The ADA has made life easier. I see it from a consulting legal standpoint," he says. "I also see it personally about the elevator buttons that I can reach sitting in my scooter. The incredible access that is available to me. And, only when I run into barriers am I surprised."

The power doors, curb cuts and visual countdown at stoplights make John Kemp's commute home on an electric scooter relatively hassle-free. Stopped in traffic on a busy downtown street he says, "People are very good about getting out of the way and even going through power doors." And, he doesn't frighten easily. "I have to keep an eye on the traffic going by and the folks. I think the big worry is that there are so many jaywalkers, including myself, that I have to really pay attention to whether there is a car coming or not." While he says some of the street repairs can be a little disconcerting, he bumps along pretty well. "It's a great commute," he says. "It is 7 blocks. If I hit all the lights correctly and get through the (traffic) circle I can do it in 11 minutes flat. That's my record."

One result of increased accessibility is increased access to jobs. But, although half of the 54 million disabled Americans are of working age, only 1/3 of them are employed.

Andrew Imparato with the American Association of People with Disabilities says many have no incentive to work because the government provides some $300 billion a year in social security and health insurance benefits. "We expect them [disabled adults] to retire when they acquire a disability," he says. "And, if they have that from birth we expect them to retire the moment they start their adult life in order to give them the supports that they need. It should be the opposite. We should be asking an 18-year old: 'What do you need to be living independently? What do you need to accomplish your career goals? And, let's develop a plan with you to support you in those goals.'"

Andrew Imparato says the challenge facing the ADA in coming years is not so much removing physical barriers, but psychological ones. "Disability is a status that everybody can experience at some point in their lives, and lots of people will," he says. "I think if we can get more people to take personal responsibility to address barriers when they see them, and to recognize that barriers of attitude are often times much more significant than a flight a stairs in terms of really trying to get the inclusion and empowerment that the ADA calls for."

Mr. Imparato says this kind of change has come more slowly, although he is encouraged by growing support from senior citizen groups and businesses. He says the case must still be made to the general public that disabled Americans want to work and by doing so can make a valuable contribution to American society.