Gains and Gaps for People with Disabilities as ADA Turns 25

Freddy K, 31, startled several golfers when he introduced himself as 7 years old during a fundraiser for Peppermint Ridge, a CHHSM ministry in Corona, California.

After a shocked silence, the attendees laughed along with Freddy, who lives in one of the organization’s residential homes for people with developmental disabilities and explained that he had only celebrated seven birthdays because he was born on a leap year.

“I’ll never forget the look on everyone’s faces,” says Danette McCarns, executive director. “His humor wasn’t acceptable because of his disability until he made it so.”

Amid the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), anecdotes like this underscore how perception about disability continues to evolve.

The ADA, which was signed into law on July 26, 1990, gives civil rights protections to people with disabilities. The landmark legislation introduced accessible standards and equal access to employment, transportation and government programs and services.

“I have become very conscientious about accessible features,” says Cindy Clark, executive director of Emmaus Homes, a nonprofit that serves adults with disabilities in St. Charles, Missouri.

The ADA standardized nationwide access through accessible parking, grab bars and wheelchair access to public transportation, she says. But other common standards since the legislation, such as accessible elevators, curb cuts and bathrooms, benefit everyone in the community, she adds. “The ADA has created the innovation for many of these everyday features that we use today.”

Both Clark and McCarns agree that the ADA enables people with developmental disabilities to transition away from residential housing and into smaller, community settings. Environmental standards and zoning laws, for instance, have made it easier for people to experience society as equal participants.

“Many communities have zoning restrictions that prohibit a certain number of unrelated adults from living together in a single home; however, ADA provides for exception to these ordinances to allow people with disabilities to share housing in order to affordably access the communities of their choosing,” Clark says.

Hopes for the next 25 years? Increased social acceptance and better employment access, McCarns says. Only about 15 percent of disabled adults worked in 2013, according to the Employment and Disability Institute at Cornell University.

“The ADA has provided countless benefits for millions of Americans, but government regulations can’t mandate acceptance or opinions about the capabilities of people with disabilities,” McCarns says. “If we’re satisfied with what we have, then we’re not doing enough.”

Freddy, who moved to Peppermint Ridge at age 20 and uses a wheelchair, agrees that attitude is key to changing perceptions.

“I have a little trouble with my legs, but otherwise, I’m just like anyone else,” he says.

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