July 30, 2015: ADA’s 25th Birthday

July 30, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

One of the nation’s most important pieces of civil rights legislation celebrated its 25th birthday this week.  The Americans with Disabilities Act became law on July 26, 1990.

The objective of the ADA is straightforward. According to the ADA National Network, a disability rights group, “the purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.”

The ADA is designed to help ensure that people with disabilities have the same employment opportunities; have the same access to “programs, services and activities” operated by state and local governments; and have reasonable access to “public accommodations” and commercial facilities.  The ADA required telephone and internet companies to provide a nationwide system of services that allows individuals with visual, hearing and speech disabilities to communicate via telephone, and required businesses to take those steps necessary to communicate effectively with all customers.

Tremendous progress has been made on extending these and other basic rights. It’s “not just about the number of accessible parking spaces,” says John Wodach, retired chief of the US Department of Justice Disability Rights Section. While past attitudes toward people with disabilities “focused on the wheelchair,” Wodach says, people today are also increasingly aware of “hearing, sight or other sensory impairments.”

The future, however, will bring challenges, warns Lex Frieden, a researcher with the ADA National Network.  More than 75 million people over the age of 65 live throughout the entire country, Frieden says.  By the year 2030, he notes, half of these people may have disabilities.  When you add those newly disabled to the 43 million people now with disabilities, the disabled population will nearly double.

Communities will need to address this Baby Boomer population, Frieden says, if we are to allow people to live independently, rather than to use adaptive living or assisted living facilities. People want to continue to stay in their own homes, Frieden says, and to live in their own communities. This raises the question of how to deliver services to people in their homes.

Frieden’s points are well-taken.  Each year, Massachusetts prepares its Annual Disability Report. The most recent report (2013) found that, in contrast to the 9.5% of Massachusetts residents aged 21 to 64 having disabilities, 22.6% of persons aged 65 to 74 have disabilities, and 48.5% of persons aged 75 and older do.

When enacted in 1990, the ADA required local governments such as Belmont to engage in a “self-evaluation” of how it would provide equal opportunities; the town was then to retain that self-evaluation for three years.  When new ADA standards were adopted in 2010, the new regulations did not require local governments to perform a new self-evaluation. Nonetheless, the Department of Justice “urges state or local governments to establish procedures for an ongoing assessment of their compliance with the ADA’s obligation to ensure all programs are readily accessible to and usable by people with disabilities. . .”  Belmont has not prepared a recent ADA self-evaluation.

Persons with disabilities represent the largest minority in the United States.  In the next few years, that population will nearly double.  According to Janet Macdonald, chair of Belmont’s Disability Access Commission, many Belmont residents, current and past, have filled the role of advocacy and raising community awareness.  There are many achievements to be proud of, Macdonald says, and yet much work still to be done.

On this 25th birthday of the ADA, we should celebrate our accomplishments in Belmont, and yet recognize that basic steps, such as preparation of an up-to-date ADA self-evaluation, remain to be pursued.

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