Americans with Disabilities Act
by Miriam Hertz
Evan as President George H. W. Bush was signing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, 1990, conflicting views were sizzling all around. In fact, as the ink lay drying on that Washington, DC summer day, we stakeholders argued over the new federal law’s historical context. Had Congress just legislated a modern social model perspective on disability that most citizens finally were embracing, or instead would the ADA and its supporters help lead an unobliging public to a day of equality among all the land’s majority and minority-identifying peoples?
Thirty years after the enactment of the ADA, the answer to this question remains difficult. U.S. Supreme Court decisions that narrowed the scope of the ADA, together with a still often unfriendly employment landscape for people with disabilities, eventually resulted in the passage of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. More generally, and in the three decades since the original ADA, the deliberate march we hoped for at that law’s signing toward equality of all peoples has been at best a halting one. This spring of 2020, a pandemic disproportionately affecting old, poor, disabled, black, and brown people has painfully clarified the moral and mortal magnitude of systemic inequality. Further bringing us up short are the protests for just treatment now worldwide.
How do we take the ADA forward when we still labor to make the social model of disability a universal perspective, and the progress we envisioned thirty years ago that we would make toward justice and equality for al is disputed? It might be illuminating to examine the extent to which the ADA is a trailblazer versus a product of its time and historical context.
Let’s take a personal example of when I thought I saw a way around barriers to my disability, only to eventually realized that, no, the ADA doesn’t go that far. In the 1980’s I said to my graduate school advisor that I didn’t see how as a person who stutters I could ever be on the radio. But my advisor, Irv Zola, replied “Why not”? I was floored. Yes, why not ask for the longer time I need to stutter out my message over the air? As is helpful to people who stutter or have other disabilities, let’s ask for the reasonable accommodation of extended time in order to be able to say or do what people with disabilities want to say or do! And nowadays maybe I don’t ask – instead I demand – more time because the ADA makes it so I have a civil right to more time for a radio address!
But does it? Professor Zola, my mentor and mentor to many others, died in 1995 from post-polio syndrome. By that time I had come to understand the ADA’s principle of “reasonable accommodation” is balanced by the ADA principle of “undue hardship,” which is often interpreted as “financial burden.” Applied to radio and me, a radio station probably could defend itself from having to provide more time to me because of the amount of time required to include all the programming to satisfy sponsors and underwriters. Further, sponsors want their time on the air to advertise. The station’s perceived financial sensibilities likely would weight greatly, while in our profit-driven society divestment by sponsors from radio to protest disability discrimination would be unlikely.
Truth is, I have never particularly wanted to be on the radio, although if I wanter to use my stuttering as comedy, there is some radio station that would grant me the time I need. But what about when an arguably essential accommodation or modification for disability, like an elevator to serve people with mobility issues, is denied installation behind the claims of undue burden and financial hardship? One response is that there needs to be enough monies available for all necessary accommodations and modifications here and everywhere. (Apparently, the possibility of tax breaks hasn’t been enough of a lure.) To make the ADA truly a trailblazer toward equality, could we amend it again, beyond the ADA Amendments Act? Could the ADA become, say, a funded mandate that is liberated from financial constraints? Free the ADA!
As long as our society is caught in a struggle for resources, financial and otherwise, and we hold dear the profit imperative, I think it will be impossible to achieve equality among all peoples. Moving toward a society that uplifts people to share more and compete less could sound like a revolution, but maybe we need one. Can we permit ourselves to look right now at the pain of a pandemic in our homes and the fury in our streets? If so, we’ll see that the resolution of these crises involves significant, even revolutionary, change and that this transformation already may be upon us.