July 25, 2013; OpEdNews


On the 23rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, activist Yvona Fast reminds us that that the nation has a long way to go in living up to the promise of the legislation signed in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. Nonprofits and foundations have significant roles to play in promoting equal access, treatment, and opportunities for persons with disabilities. The ADA didn’t solve problems in one fell swoop. Rather, it is a tool that the nonprofit sector can use to address the needs of persons with disabilities. Evidence of how much remains to be done can be found in stories from the local to the international:

  • A program in the Excelsior area of San Francisco meant to help a small number of local businesses meet ADA standards is running out of money, leaving nine businesses that had had ADA compliance audits without city subsidy to help them meet accessibility needs, such as wider doorways and improved restroom access.
  • The U.S. Department of Justice is suing Florida, contending that the state has “systemically segregated and isolated [children with disabilities] in nursing homes when they should have been eligible for home healthcare”
  • In New York, the state just settled a case around practices in New York City of segregating mentally ill patients in privately-owned institutional adult care homes, rather than placing them in more residentially integrated settings. Per the settlement, the City will offer mentally ill persons supported housing opportunities. The New York Times called the state’s practices prior to the settlement “shameful.”
  • Despite a 14.2 percent unemployment rate for persons with disabilities—twice the unemployment rate of persons without disabilities—federal contractors are protesting a proposed White House policy that would set a minimum seven-percent target for contractors’ jobs to be filled by persons with disabilities. In addition, the potential hiring rule might also establish a two-percent target for hiring persons with “severe” disabilities. In FY 2011, according to the Office of Personnel Management, although 11 percent of the federal workforce self-identified as persons with disabilities, including disabled veterans, less than one percent were persons with severe or “targeted” disabilities (listed in Standard Form 256 as including total deafness, blindness, missing extremities, partial paralysis, and complete paralysis)
  • Secretary of State John Kerry recently wrote in USA Today calling for U.S. ratification of a United Nations treaty—modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act—that would basically extend ADA-like standards internationally. In December, Republicans in the U.S. Senate succeeded in blocking U.S. ratification, fearing that the treaty would impinge on U.S. sovereignty. They were particularly motivated by the pleas of former senator Rick Santorum, who campaigned against the treaty, concerned that it would somehow interfere with homeschooling.

This list could go on for pages, outlining the still-huge challenges that await before the ADA turns into a reality for all persons with disabilities. The original sponsor of the ADA, retiring senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), had this to say about the 23rd anniversary of his landmark bill:

“This week, to commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we are celebrating amazing strides in expanding access and opportunities for people with disabilities. But let’s not overlook a glaring exception to this success story. More than 200,000 working-age Americans remain trapped in nursing homes and other institutions, separated from their families and communities, often against their wishes…The confinement of working-age people with disabilities in institutions is a shameful holdover from the worst practices of the past. It persists despite the Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C. more than a decade ago, which ruled that the ADA requires individuals with disabilities to be integrated into the community rather than warehoused in nursing homes and other institutions. The Supreme Court asserted that unnecessary segregation of people with disabilities is a violation of fundamental civil rights. But it is more—it is also a violation of the human spirit, and it denies our society the talents and gifts of citizens who are eager to contribute.”

On this important day, nonprofits and foundations should remember that persons with disabilities exist among all races, ethnicities, and income groups. Equal rights for persons with disabilities is a civil rights issue for all Americans. It is time to renew and redouble our commitment to using the ADA to do what is right for persons with disabilities and for all Americans.—Rick Cohen