By Ashley Jacobson, Esq., MA, CRC
On July 26, 1990 President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. This Act addresses discrimination against people with disabilities with broad-sweeping protections. If you have a physical, mental, cognitive, hearing, visual, or other condition that significantly interferes with one or more major life activities (eating, sleeping, grooming, cooking, etc.); have been diagnosed or recorded as having such a condition; or if you are regarded by others as having a disability this law protects you.
It establishes that people with disabilities must not face discrimination in public, private, transportation, education–pretty much anywhere. And yet, since this law was enacted, people with disabilities have had little luck holding the Act’s violators accountable.
One reason for this, is that the legal battle for fighting disability discrimination in court is tumultuous and COSTLY. With a large portion of the disability community unemployed or underemployed, often because of discrimination in hiring practices, how are people with disabilities to afford lengthy legal battles?
Another issue with enforcing the ADA is that most employers, politicians, parents, friends, and other community members never made the effort to understand the protections afforded in this important piece of law. Ignorance is not an excuse when it comes to enforcing laws, but the lack of general understanding about the ADA outside of the disability community leads to burnout among the disability community’s members, who have to explain and be experts in protecting their rights, AND holding people in positions of power accountable.
This leads to the third issue–many people with disabilities lack a thorough knowledge of their disability rights. The ADA is certainly the most discussed disability rights law, but it is just one of quite a few laws protecting people with disabilities. Even so, after the general purpose of the law, many people don’t know the Act’s specific provisions. If you don’t know the provisions, how can you know every instance those rights are violated? Disability rights attorneys like myself, and educators (special educators and general educators) need to operate on an accessible level, educating the disability community from a young age on how its members are entitled to protections under the law to account for systemic ableism and discrimination that threatens their livelihood, and sometimes–their lives.
However, even when disability rights attorneys know and help those with disabilities, too many attorneys have no training in adapting the legal process to the needs of their clients with disabilities. The legal system is largely inaccessible, and lawyers rarely have the special education and disability rehabilitation counseling work background I have. They don’t change how the documents look so that their clients with visual disabilities can read them. They don’t adapt their questions in legal consultations to account for communication differences. They don’t know, what they don’t know, but that’s never an excuse. Lawyers, of all specialties, need to approach each client with individual assessments of how the legal system can be adapted to involve them in their cases.
Let’s say that the person knows his rights, has a job or can afford an attorney, that attorney is knowledgeable in serving people with disabilities, that attorney adapts the legal process to the client’s needs, and there is a clear violation of the ADA. Depending on where the discrimination takes place, it can be extremely challenging holding the guilty party accountable.
Too frequently, the person in charge of implementing punishment or holding wrong-doers accountable has no background in assessing circumstances for a person with a disability. The state’s department of civil rights takes on too few cases, shows difficulty in upholding disability rights and holding discriminators accountable, and routinely ignores complaints against people who work for community agencies, professional groups, employers, etc. If the department of civil rights isn’t the person who holds the guilty discriminator accountable, even the courts have difficulty in deciding how severe the punishments should be. They assess the remedies under the law incorrectly, because they wrongly assume people with disabilities wouldn’t make as much money in their jobs or would have a more restricted working past or future. This is important, because punishments under the law take into account loss of work and pay when determining how much money someone should receive once they win the lawsuit. If the judge or jury decides you deserve less, especially because they are unaware of their biases against people with disabilities, plaintiffs are at-risk of being under rewarded and remedied even if they win their cases.
Additionally, for workplace discrimination issues, the lawmakers who enacted the ADA decided that small workplaces can be excused for discriminating against the disability community. If the number of employees is small, employers may be able to discriminate without consequence. There are holes in the ADA that must be addressed.
The ADA was certainly a start–but 30 years later, we can do better. We shouldn’t settle for a law written decades prior, when we can address disability equality needs today. Travel, schools, leaders, and so many more aspects of our lives today have changed. Our laws (and the enforcement of the laws) must reflect that.
Especially when the pandemic brings with it discussions of lessening accommodations in schools (it can’t under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Rehab Act, and ADA–but it can evolve to create different “reasonable” accommodations under the ADA in pandemic times). Especially when marriage equality is not a concrete right for people with disabilities who rely on government benefits for healthcare and financial assistance (there may be legal options depending on the person, but in a wide variety of cases people with disabilities can lose vital benefits if they’re married and their spouse makes more than $2,000 a month–another reason why the lawyer you choose is so important. They may be able to use certain trusts for this not to be an issue). Especially when employers are still discriminating against people with disabilities in interviews and workplaces. Especially when police are still using excessive force and wrongfully arresting people with disabilities because they misunderstand disability symptoms and instead see those symptoms as evidence of criminal behavior or motives. Especially when prosecutors are still uneducated on interviewing people with disabilities (a community more likely to be attacked by violent or economic criminals). Especially when prosecutors are more likely to not bring cases against criminals who target people with disabilities because they see a person with a disability as an “unreliable witness.” Especially when juries are still susceptible to imposing their disability biases when deciding the fate of a defendant with a disability.
Celebrate the ADA. It was, and still is, a monumental law. But it shouldn’t be the be-all-end-all-law for communities that continue to evolve. Disability discrimination still happens every day. We can and must do better.