Advocates for the disabled handed out wristbands at Owens Community College last week to mark Monday's 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The wristbands read: "ADA: 20 Years Toward Equality."
The preposition was a conscious choice.
"We decided it couldn't say '20 years of' equality,' because there's still work to be done," said Sue Emerine, director of disability services at Owens. "There's still a lack of recognition, a lack of understanding."
President George H.W. Bush signed the groundbreaking act into law on July 26, 1990, after it passed by large margins in both branches of Congress.
At the time, the bill was hailed as the equivalent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in terms of what it could do for the more than 40 million people in America with disabilities.
But in the 20 years since the bill's passage, life in America has not always been better for disabled citizens.
Advocates for the disabled say local governments have been slow in enacting ADA provisions. Some Supreme Court decisions have limited the scope of the bill. As a result, many argue that civil-rights violations have persisted.
Shelley Papenfuse, disability-rights advocate at the Ability Center of Greater Toledo, says the Americans with Disabilities Act was intended to be a sweeping civil-rights law that would address access in the area of employment, places of public accommodation, as well as in the community, but 'because it addresses so many parts of our lives, there was no real way to monitor all those areas.'
For one thing, many disabled men and women remain unable to find jobs, particularly in these times of economic strife.
"We continue to be marginalized in the work force," said Shelley Papenfuse, disability-rights advocate at the Ability Center of Greater Toledo.
Ms. Papenfuse said that unemployment for people with disabilities typically hovers around 70 percent, despite the ADA's requirement that no employer shall discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability.
But Ms. Papenfuse and others believe that the struggle disabled people face to find jobs relates to a whole web of other unaddressed issues.
"If you don't have housing and accessible transportation, you're not going to be able to keep a job," she said. "You're not going to be able to get there and be reliable and consistent."
Moreover, she said, many disabled Americans continue to be "unnecessarily institutionalized" in nursing care facilities because of an Ohio mandate that healthcare dollars not be used to pay for home care.
Although the ADA includes provisions that guarantee equal access for the disabled to employment, public transportation, and public accommodations, there is often something lost in translation when it comes time to implement those provisions, Ms. Papenfuse and others said.
"The ADA was intended to be a sweeping civil-rights law that would address access in the area of employment, in places of public accommodation, as well as in our community, our streets, our bridges, our sidewalks," said Ms. Papenfuse. "But because it addresses so many parts of our lives, there was no real way to monitor all those areas."
"There are no ADA police," said Ms. Emerine of Owens. "How it gets enforced is by injured parties making a complaint. People ask nice a few times and after they've asked nice enough, they're going to complain, and they have that right."
Because of its scope, the efficacy of the ADA now effectively relies on private citizens like Ms. Papenfuse and Ms. Emerine to constantly play the role of watchdog in advocating for the rights of the disabled and drawing attention to violations of ADA statutes.
"We've had to fight," said Dan Wilkins, director of public relations and community partnerships at the Ability Center.
"It's still a struggle for equality. There's always somebody that's going to come along and say, 'these people don't belong here, they're not worthy of the extra dollars.'"
Further complicating matters is the advent of social media and the increasing presence of the Internet in the daily lives of Americans. The original ADA was passed before the popularization of the Web, so its provisions are constantly reinterpreted in light of the changing context.
As part of her efforts at Owens, Ms. Emerine works to ensure that the recent ubiquity of Facebook and YouTube does not result in the exclusion of the disabled.
She said online lecture videos must come with detailed captions so that deaf students can understand the content, and course Web sites must be coupled with audio descriptions to incorporate blind students into the highly visual Web culture.
"With the explosion of social media, education is jumping on using those things," said Ms. Emerine. "Technology can be a fabulous tool, but if it's not used thoughtfully and planned out, it can exclude people unintentionally."
What's more, not everyone sees the ADA in the same unambiguously positive light as these advocates do. As the bill made its way through Congress in 1989 and 1990, it was met with an outcry from some who felt that it would impose too heavy a burden on private businesses.
Although those cries have largely subsided with the bill's acceptance as law, there still exist rumblings of discontent among business owners.
Carol Van Sickle, vice president of public affairs for the Toledo Area Chamber of Commerce, said that although she supported the ADA in its original form, more recent interpretations of the bill are getting "farther and farther out on the edge" and that its requirements are becoming onerous.
Ms. Van Sickle said that for the Chamber of Commerce, which deals with 80 percent small businesses, the ADA has made things difficult with its many restrictions.
"They make it more difficult from the record-keeping standpoint," she said. "Anything that takes away from getting your product out the door as a small or medium-sized business is tough, particularly now, when we're fighting like the dickens to keep our businesses alive."
Nevertheless, disability-rights advocates in Toledo emphasize that their cause has made tremendous strides over the past 20 years.
Fifth Third Field and the Huntington Center are completely wheelchair-accessible. Since 1998, all TARTA buses come fully equipped with special seating and ramps or lifts for the disabled. And the University of Toledo now features a disability studies program, thanks to a $1.9 million donation from the Ability Center in 2001.
"There's an expectation that people with disabilities will be patrons of these places," Ms. Papenfuse said.
This week, events are scheduled across the city of Toledo celebrating the anniversary of the bill's passage.
Owens Community College in Perrysburg Township will show a photo exhibit titled "From Institutions to Independence: A History of People Living With Disabilities in Northwest Ohio," on loan from the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections at the University of Toledo.
The exhibit, featuring historical photographs of those with mental illness, vision and hearing impairment, and physical and developmental disabilities, will be on display tomorrow through Aug. 22.
Today at the Toledo Zoo, the Ability Center will hold its 10th annual ADA awareness day, an information fair featuring more than 100 disability organizations.
The awareness day also will celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Ability Center, initially founded as the Toledo Society for Crippled Children in 1920.
With laws in place, disability-rights advocates say that their greatest hope is for public awareness and support.
"It's all about helping the general population to understand," Mr. Wilkins said.
"They're still human beings entitled to everything everyone else is entitled to."
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