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Disabilities act falls short of the goal of equality

By Jeffrey Freedman

Imagine living in a world where it’s a struggle to get into the grocery store because of a raised curb.

You want to work, but you can’t because the only way to get to a job is on public transportation, and that’s not accessible to you because you use a wheelchair. That was the world that existed prior to 1990.

Only after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26 of that year did those barriers slowly begin to come down.

We’ve come a long way since the ADA. James Weisman, senior vice president and general counsel to the United Spinal Association in New York City, helped draft the act 22 years ago. Weisman says, “Improvements in architecture and the built environment have been amazing. But there is still a lot to be done.”

The primary goal of the ADA was to facilitate employment by providing access to public accommodations for those challenged by a disability. Yet the unemployment rate today for workers with disabilities remains substantially higher than that of the general population.

The issues behind this are both old and new. Stigmas against persons with visual or cognitive impairments, or those who use wheelchairs, continue to steer employers away from these workers.

Many of today’s jobs require employees to use the Internet, which is a “public accommodation.” Although the ADA requires websites to be accessible to everyone, including the blind and hearing-impaired (a fact most businesses are unaware of), Internet access is virtually out of reach to many people with disabilities.

The ADA was drafted as a reasonable law. It didn’t ask businesses to spend exorbitant amounts to remove barriers. It gave public transportation systems years to incorporate accessible vehicles into their fleets, and much progress has been made.

Yet, if you look around Buffalo, you see that even after 22 years many older buildings remain inaccessible. Frequently this is due to ignorance of the regulations, and when building owners become educated about the ADA they are often willing to comply.

Another critical aspect is the huge cost involved in excluding this segment of our society from the opportunity to work, support themselves and contribute to the economy.

Those who can’t work must depend on Medicaid, disability benefits and other social programs.

Better implementation of the ADA and the expansion of its reach would save our society untold dollars in benefits and put people who want to work into the workforce. But more than that, it would fulfill one of the basic promises this nation was founded on: Equality for all.