In an op-ed written for The Hill earlier this month, Judith Heumann, Special Advisor on International Disability Rights for the U.S. State Department, explained the global impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):

“With the passage of the ADA, the United States became the first country in the world to adopt national civil rights legislation banning discrimination against people with disabilities in the public and private sector. People from around the world who travelled here saw the changes our country was making and were amazed. We had become the gold standard, and other countries aspired to be just like us.”

The ADA is a comprehensive civil-rights law signed by George H. W. Bush in 1990. The law was intended to “assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.” In addition to ensuring equal access to public services and public accommodations, the ADA provides protections to people with disabilities in the workplace and certain educational settings. The enactment of the ADA was an assurance for those with disabilities that they too were free to demand the right to equality, independence and freedom.

For 24 years, the ADA has been an enforcement mechanism by which people with disabilities have ensured their equal access of public accommodations, education, government services, health care and many other sectors of society to ensure independent living.  Successes in the 24th year of the ADA have included:

A settlement agreement was reached in the case of the United States v. the Delran Township School District of New Jersey. The school district had incorrectly denied an 8 year old with autism, developmental coordination disorder and encephalopathy the use of his service animal.  The school district had no policy that pertained to the use of service animals by their students. After many burdensome requests, the school district denied the request, citing concern for student allergies, the possible fear of the other students, the concerns of the other parents and the ability to supervise and transport the animal. The Department of Justice (DOJ) was successfully able to enforce the protections due to the child under Title II of the ADA, and require that the School District make reasonable modifications to its policies, practices, and procedures to ensure the student could attend school with his peers.

A settlement agreement between Blair County, Pennsylvania, and the DOJ ensured its citizens of their right to vote. An investigation conducted during the November 2012 election showed that many of the polling locations in Blair County had barriers to access for people with disabilities. By entering into this agreement, the county assures those with disabilities that every polling location will provide the features, equipment and training necessary to permit equal access. The county must ensure that polling locations are either made permanently or temporarily accessible. If a location is not accessible and cannot be made temporarily accessible, then an alternative location must be found. This settlement agreement reaffirms that no citizen should be denied their right to vote.

A settlement agreement between Commonwealth Health & Rehab Center (CHRC) in Fairfax County, Virginia, and the DOJ preserves patients’ rights to equal access to medical services. In this case, the complainant, the mother and sister of a deaf young patient, requested the presence of an American Sign Language interpreter for appointment at CHRC. These requests were denied. Additionally, the attending physician insisted that his patient use a pen and paper, even though the complainant had broken his writing hand. Now, CHRC is required by the terms of the settlement agreement to provide appropriate auxiliary aids and services, a designated ADA Administrator, a policy statement that affirms the patient’s right of access to these aids and services, and appropriate training of CHRC personnel. CHRC was also required to compensate the Complainants with $160,000 total for the suffering caused by the discriminatory acts.

These cases highlight the vital role of enforcing ADA regulations to ensure people their basic rights. On the 24th anniversary of the enactment of this landmark legislation, it is important to remember that the ADA was meant to be assurance for those with disabilities to have the legal tools necessary to advocate for equality and independence. Though we have made substantial strides toward greater equality for those with disabilities, we cannot neglect the continued discrimination faced by individuals with disabilities every day. For it is when there is no accountability for our actions that the abuse we had hoped to eradicate creeps back into the system.

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