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Americans With Disabilities Act Celebrates 25th Anniversary

Hailed as the Bill of Rights for individuals with disabilities, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 has fulfilled much of its promise since it went into effect 25 years ago, according to a survey of disability leaders released on July 23 in Washington, DC. But the findings also reveal ongoing and emerging challenges and areas of opportunity.

Lex Frieden, a professor of biomedical informatics at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), in conjunction with the ADA Participation Action Research Consortium, authored the non-scientific survey to gauge the ADA's impact on individuals with disabilities and the broader disability community after 25 years. The survey was conducted from April 14 through May 17, 2015. In a follow up to a similar survey conducted in 2010, this year's survey polled 725 participants, representing more than 600 communities across all 50 states and three of the five U.S. territories.

Frieden, who uses a wheelchair following a 1967 traffic accident in which his spinal cord was severed, was instrumental in conceiving and drafting the ADA, which was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush on July 26, 1990. The ADA was intended to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Requiring shops, restaurants, theaters, hotels, and other public places to make accommodations for people with disabilities, the ADA made it possible for all—with or without a disability—to engage in everyday activities, such as going to school or work and taking public transportation. The U.S. Census Bureau reports nearly one in five live with a disability, or approximately 57 million Americans.

Frieden also directs the Independent Living Research Utilization (ILRU) program at TIRR Memorial Hermann.

"Eighty-four percent of survey respondents believe the quality of life for individuals with disabilities in communities across the United States has improved greatly since the passage of the ADA," Frieden said. "Moreover, two-thirds of the survey respondents with disabilities believe the ADA legislation has had more influence on their lives than any other social, cultural, or legislative change in the last 20 years."

"But respondents also pointed out that there are opportunities to be realized and challenges to be overcome," Frieden said.

One survey respondent wrote: "I am able to work, volunteer at my son's school, and receive help from government agencies because of the ADA. Most importantly, I am able to be a vibrant part of the community because of the ADA, which has a big impact on people with and without disabilities."

Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed agreed access to public accommodations, retail, and commercial establishments has shown the greatest improvement since the passage of the ADA. "The ADA has helped people gain access… with attention to things like curb cuts, accessible parking, buses with lifts and ramps, etc.—making media more accessible with closed captioning and relay services," wrote one respondent.

Survey respondents also described remarkable improvements in the area of transportation for individuals with disabilities and credited the ADA with advancing access to independent and community living and public awareness about the ADA and disability etiquette. With regard to independent and community living, another respondent shared, "As a parent who uses a wheelchair, and has two children (now age 8 and 10) who have mobility impairments, the ADA's impact on 'simple things' like accessible restrooms and accessible diaper changing stations has made all the difference in my family's successful inclusion in our community."

According to Frieden, challenges to full ADA implementation persist. Not all respondents expressed satisfaction with employment opportunities for people with disabilities. "Although there's been significant improvement in employment rates, retention, and workplace accommodations for individuals with disabilities since 1990, there continues to be large disparities between Americans with disabilities and without, as evidenced by the employment rates of 17.6% and 64%, respectively," said Frieden. "The survey underscores the need for aggressive action to implement those provisions of the ADA requiring equal opportunity in employment, access to health care, accessible housing, and alternatives to institutionalization."

--Source: University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston