A quarter century ago, The Sun published an article I wrote lauding the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act and its potential for bringing positive change. When he signed this historic law, President George H.W. Bush stated, "Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down."
As we reach the 25th anniversary of the ADA this Sunday, let's consider how the landscape has changed thanks to the ADA and whether inclusion has been accomplished. The greatest successes of the ADA have been with access to public accommodations and transportation, including the following notable changes.
Let us begin with bathrooms, because, honestly, people cannot actively participate in their community for long without needing one. Five foot wide stalls are now required, allowing ample room for wheelchair users to turn. Grab bars usually are mounted correctly alongside the toilet, although I have found some odd and rather comical placements. Non-skid flooring material prevents falls.
Most restaurants appear to train their staff members to be comfortable and confident in their interactions with customers having various disabilities. This was not always the case in the past when wait staff often asked our companions what we wanted to order; now they typically speak directly to us.
Stadiums and ballparks built after 1996 provide unobstructed sight lines that allow wheelchair users to see home runs or touchdowns when other fans seated in front of us jump to their feet in excitement. Companion seating assures we do not need to sit alone.
All buses are now accessible, including fixed route city buses, over-the-road buses and shuttles. The importance of transportation access cannot be overstated since many people with various disabilities are unable to drive. Accessible public transit makes employment possible and prevents social isolation.
The integration mandate of the ADA was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Olmstead v. L.C., and now thousands of people across the country are receiving services they need in their local communities rather than in nursing facilities and other institutions. Over 1,000 of our neighbors here in Maryland have moved from nursing facilities to their own homes as a result of the ADA. Some are older Americans who you might expect to find in a nursing facility, but many are younger people in their 20s or 30s.
Imagine yourself as an adult having to take your son or daughter, mother or father to every medical appointment to interpret for you. Until the ADA, few physicians, clinics and hospitals made professional sign language interpreters available for their deaf patients. Thanks to the ADA, it is now a requirement, and deaf people are afforded the same level of privacy and confidentiality as everyone else.
Currently, regulations are pending that will create greater access to the Internet for individuals who are blind, have low vision or are deaf. Many jobs require the use of the Internet, and our marketplace has been shifting to more online companies. We must be certain that all people are able to access all websites.
Unfortunately, the employment section of the ADA has not produced the intended results of getting more people with disabilities in the workplace. Nationally, only 33 percent of people with disabilities are employed. The rate is better for Marylanders, with 41 percent of people with disabilities employed in 2013 (Baltimore city settled a discrimination lawsuit with the U.S. Justice Department last year, agreeing to bring their hiring practices in line with the ADA, and Baltimore County reached a similar settlement in 2012).
Employment, however, is a complex problem that requires having the skills needed by employers, as well as employers who understand the value of having people with disabilities in their companies. More work incentives are needed, as are workplace policies that welcome back employees who have acquired a disability and support employees who are experiencing ongoing health issues that might eventually result in disability. We all need to believe that disability does not equate with an inability to work — just ask Stephen Hawking, Stevie Wonder, Marlee Matlin, Michael J. Fox and Terry Bradshaw, all of whom have excelled in their jobs.
It is important that we re-dedicate ourselves to addressing the employment problem. Having a job in our world means being valued and feeds our sense of self-worth. Most importantly, a job leads to economic self-sufficiency.
Twenty-five years of the ADA have produced very good results. In the next 25 years, however, we need to see far greater numbers of people with disabilities making their contributions in the workforce.
Catherine Raggio served as the secretary of the Maryland Department of Disabilities from 2007 to 2014 and volunteers extensively in her retirement. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.