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Americans with Disabilities Act Celebrates 20 Years

Disability activist Joel Solkoff

It has been 20 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA is a landmark federal law that requires, among other things, that the disabled be given equal access to public buildings and amenities, and that they not be discriminated against in the workplace. But what impact has the ADA had on the lives of the disabled, and what work remains?

When the ADA passed in 1990, Joel Solkoff had been getting progressively disabled for years. An overdose of radiation during the 1970s for treatment of cancer had made it impossible for him to walk unaided. He remembers his relief a few years later, when he heard about a job as a technical writer. It was work for which he was well-suited.

"I applied along with several other people, and the employer was required to overlook the fact that I was sitting in a wheelchair and to just simply decide… based on my actual qualifications and not based on whether or not I am in wheelchair," recalled Solkoff.

Once he was hired, the ADA required his employer to make "reasonable accommodations" to his disability. For example, when Solkoff arrived at work to find that the office machinery was placed on shelves too high for him to reach from his wheelchair.

"I could say to my employer, 'I cannot reach the fax machine, would you please lower the fax machine.' That would be a reasonable request," added Solkoff. "The question is what does somebody like me who has a disability need in order to get the job done and what can the employer do to make it easier for me to do that?"

But other concessions to reasonable access have proved more controversial in the 20 years since the ADA became law. For example, because of his condition, Solkoff tires easily. Would it be a reasonable accommodation to allow him to save the energy required to get to the office by working at home? Could he complete his eight hour workday in odd spurts of four hours each so long as his productivity didn't suffer?

"One clear way of making it easier is for me to be able to do a lot of my work by computer," he said. "But in 1990 it was not part of the culture of my office to allow people to have that kind of flexibility that they could work at home and send in what they were doing. You had to be there in order to be regarded as really working. Since the ADA was passed in 1990, the corporate and business culture has changed considerably and working at home has become much more acceptable."

Computers also offer remote access to an employer's online server, and it's possible to send documents anywhere in the world at the click of a mouse. And computers have other advantages. Solkoff can research articles on disability issues and any other subject on the Internet, without trekking to a "brick and mortar" library. But how easy it is really for people in wheelchairs to get around?

"And the answer to that is 'it depends on what community you live in,'" noted Solkoff. "When I visit my mother in Greensboro North Carolina and leave the hotel which is a hotel that has disability accommodations under the ADA, and I go out into the driveway and go down into the street and look for a place to eat, I can't get across the street because there are no street cuts."

Still, Solkoff is enormously glad for his motorized wheelchair, which makes it possible to get out of bed, get to the bathroom, take a shower, and get around his apartment.

"I can go out. I can go to the library. I can have a meal. I can go to a class. I can meet other people, and I can live a life that is independent," he said.

Yet Solkoff says the design of his wheelchair is flawed. He says that like other technology for the disabled, it may have been designed primarily by able-bodied engineers who did not consult people with disabilities themselves. He wishes, for example, his wheelchair had large pockets he could use while grocery shopping.

"The people who designed the wheelchair assume somebody else is with me," he explained. "If I were involved in the designing of buses, I would not design buses which require people to get off the bus in order for me to get on the bus and to have to stand out in ten degree weather in great discomfort to accommodate me. I would have designed them differently."

The problem, says Solkoff, is that institutions often strive to follow the legal letter of the ADA but not its inclusive spirit. As an example, Solkoff cites a university building that sports a $15,000 wheelchair lift that lets him ride the stairs down to the restroom. But, he adds, the key to activate the lift is kept in another building.

While praising the intent of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, Joel Solkoff says far more progress needs to be made over the next two decades. He wants the low-income disabled to have far greater access to technology than they do now. And he wants people with disabilities to flex their collective muscle.

"I'd like to see a disability movement which will transform the political establishment. Not enough of us are in power," said Solkoff.

Through his activism, a blog on disabilities and a column in a monthly news magazine, Joel Solkoff is working to change that.