Americans with Disabilities Act is a gift to all Americans (Guest post: Britany Burris)

Britany Burris is a senior at Northeastern State University studying Political Science. She is a Disability rights and Deaf rights advocate here in Oklahoma, and she was a 2014 participant in OK Policy’s Summer Policy Institute.

Britany Burris
Britany Burris

On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the civil rights law for people with disabilities, was signed into law, making discrimination against people with disabilities illegal. It affected all sections of public life and gave people with disabilities the same rights as everyone else. It told society that people with disabilities were not worth less than others.

The ADA opened the door for other laws that have greatly improved the lives of people with disabilities — on disability parking, education targeting students with disabilities, independent living, and captioning. According to the US Census American Community Survey, 15.6 percent of all Oklahomans, or about 577,000 people, have one or more disabilities. That number goes up to 42.3 percent for Oklahomans age 65 and older. The ADA has also been important for pregnant women, parents who use strollers, and the elderly. You do not have to use a wheelchair to benefit from curb cuts or elevators.

I am lucky that I was born a little less than three months after the ADA became law, which means I have never known life without the protection of this law. I was born with Cerebral Palsy, and I am hard of hearing. I have had mobility, hearing, and speech issues all my life. While growing up, I did not think about the ADA or even know about it. It wasn’t until 2012, when I had to start using a wheelchair full-time, that I started to understand the ADA and what it does for me.

It is because of the Americans with Disabilities Act that I am able to go to college. My college is required to have curb cuts and elevators to help me navigate my campus. They are required to accommodate me for classes. I can ask for extra time on tests and assignments, and my absences are overlooked due to medical reasons. I can ask for a note taker and a desk that I can use from my wheelchair.

Because of the ADA, my apartment is equipped with a roll in shower, low counter-tops, sinks, and stove, and a larger-than-average closet so I can maneuver my chair. The ADA made it possible for me to have an interpreter at job interviews and even events. Last summer, I was able to attend OK Policy’s Summer Policy Institute, an experience that is a highlight in my life. I was able to attend only because the ADA states that places are to provide me with an interpreter. I would not have understood what was happening or enjoyed myself without one.

[pullquote]”It is because of the Americans with Disabilities Act that I am able to go to college.”[/pullquote]Thanks to the ADA, businesses are required to have an entrance that is accessible to wheelchair users — which means I can have dinner with friends and colleagues, go to stores and do my own shopping, and see the latest movie in a theater (which is required to have captioning devices). All of these small things add up to independence for me and people like me. It allows us all to have active and successful lives. I have a bright and hopeful future only because of the ADA.

The ADA has done amazing things for Americans, but there is still more to do. So much has changed in our world since 1990. Technology has made vast improvements in our accommodations for people with disabilities, but many advancements are not covered by the ADA. The law did not go far enough for people with invisible disabilities and people who use service animals. When there are violations, little can be done to address them.

The ADA was passed as an unfunded mandate, which means Congress set no money aside for it. Consequently, most people are concerned with the cost of accommodating people with disabilities and refuse or are unable to bring themselves up to code. This is a large issue in rural areas and also with employment. Just 35.3 percent of Oklahomans with disabilities ages 21-64 are employed. That’s less than half of the employment rate (75.1 percent) for Oklahomans without disabilities in the same age range. Across the U.S., people with disabilities are twice as likely to be poor as people without disabilities. The difference is staggering. This gap does not exist because people with disabilities do not want jobs or refuse to try; it exists due to a lack of accommodations; it exists due to the myths surrounding the ADA and people with disabilities.

There is more our state can do for those with disabilities. An educational campaign about the ADA for politicians, business owners, and teachers is crucial. They must learn how to follow the ADA’s guidelines. Second, the ADA has gaps—captioning, protection for people with service animals, employment initiatives, and more—and laws must be created to address them.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a gift to all Americans. On the 25th birthday of this law, I am thinking about my life and marveling at the fact that one law made such as positive impact on me. The Americans with Disabilities Act declared to the world that people with disabilities are equal to and just as important as able-bodied Americans. To me that is worth celebrating. Happy birthday, ADA!

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The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

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