The Americans with Disabilities Act Turns 20

The anniversary is a time to celebrate the big legal victories, but also the small symbols of acceptance. Like the TV show Parenthood, which features a character with Asperger's. Or Artie, the choir member on Glee who uses a wheelchair.

Lex Frieden understands exactly how far we've come. He's a professor and rehabilitation specialist at University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. Like Artie, he's also a wheelchair user. In 1967, Frieden broke his neck in a car accident. Practically overnight, he confronted a new world of barriers and blatant discrimination. When Frieden tried to transfer to a different college, he was rejected because he had a disability. Even simple pleasures were out of reach back then.

"You couldn't get into a theater if you were in a wheelchair, there was no seating for you. You couldn't sit in the aisle because there were fire codes and hazards and so on. Many restaurants didn't provide access to people with disabilities, there was no law that required them to do that. It's hard to remember back then but that was reality, as late as 1990 frankly."

Frieden helped craft the ADA and pushed for its passage in 1990. This year, he surveyed more than 800 people with disabilities, about the law's impact. The majority agreed that the ADA had been most helpful in public spaces — it led to accessible parking spots, Braille signage, and wheelchair lifts on buses. Frieden says this allowed greater integration and also had a cultural impact.

"The perception of the community toward people with disabilities has improved dramatically in the last two decades. We have examples that people have told us wherein they used to try and get out and they got funny looks and they were hazed, and they weren't sure whether it was just because nobody had ever seen anybody with their condition before or whether people didn't like to see their condition in the public or what it was — but they always got 'the look.' And those same people said 'You know we can go anywhere we want to now, and we're just like everybody else.'"

But economic independence is still a struggle. Although the ADA prohibits workplace discrimination, 50 percent of people with disabilities remain unemployed. That's often because they don't have what they need to live independently and find jobs. Many health insurers won't pay for the specialized wheelchairs and other aids that people could use to get to work and participate in daily life. Frieden says the new health reform law could help somewhat, since insurers won't be able to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions.

"I mean, goodness gracious. You've had an accident, you're disabled already, you go to work, your employer offers health insurance and all of a sudden you find out that it doesn't cover you. Now, I can't think of anything that is more egregiously discriminatory than that. It doesn't go into effect for a few years but it's a great, giant step forward."

Frieden will celebrate today, but says there's still more work to be done.

Carrie Feibel, KUHF News.
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