What does the future hold for disabled Americans like me?

Part of my disability is poor motor control and clumsiness. I walk with an uneven gait at times, and balance can be an issue occasionally when I may lose my footing and involuntarily grab onto anything to keep myself from falling. Other times I have difficulty doing certain body moves and positions that normal people can do. The way I talk makes people uncomfortable. I’m not good at carrying on a conversation or with a large group of people.

The challenges people with disabilities like me face every day at home, at work and in school are everywhere. Not only did I get looks and taunts in college but I got them in high school as well. All for being different; all because I didn’t fit into the definition of “normal.” People with disabilities often face many challenges when trying to navigate the world.

Just 22 years ago it was legal to not hire, to fire, or discriminate against Americans with disabilities.The Americans with Disabilities Act,  enacted in 1990, did things like repeal the last of the ugly discriminatory laws that prohibited people with disabilities from coming out in public, and required employers to provide accommodations for disabled workers on the job. Employers also were not allowed to discriminate against potential employees with disabilities during the interview process and pass them over for a non-disabled applicant. Employers were forbidden to ask if a person is disabled as well during an interview. The ADA empowers the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to file lawsuits against employers who violate the law.

I remember one of the first disability rights actions I took part in was in 2010 when Senate tea party candidate Rand Paul said he opposed the Americans with Disabilities Act. For a short while disability rights activists and their advocates came together to protest. I took part in organizing an online campaign to get an apology and even attended a protest. We never did get our apology but it just shows you the kinds of things people with disabilities face every day from ignorant people who walk all over us. Some of it’s intentional and other times it’s not.

So what can we do for people with disabilities to make discrimination go away?

Employers often successfully challenge the ADA’s statutes in court and often win. In 2008 it became necessary to rework the entire law because it had been severely weakened by court challenges from employers who didn’t care one bit about the workers they fired or otherwise discriminated against. The 2008 ADA Amendments Act clarified and broadened the disability definition. And it required courts interpreting the ADA and other federal disability nondiscrimination laws to focus on whether the employer has discriminated, rather than whether the individual seeking the law’s protection has an impairment that fits within the technical definition of the term “disability.”

The amendment act has successfully restored much of what the ADA was originally intended to do. As a result, the EEOC now has the tools to do its job. But we have to make sure that employers and sympathetic courts do not continue to obstruct the ADA.

We can also expand education programs and social services for people with disabilities.

Educational services are already in place in public schools and higher education by law. By law and court rulings public schools are required to identify and test individuals with disabilities and provide them with a “least restrictive environment” and a “free public and adequate education.” This can be done by providing accommodations in the classroom for the student or through special education.

In higher education things are very different. Students with disabilities have the burden of proving to colleges and universities that they have a disability before they can receive accommodations in the classroom. Once this is done students receive accommodations free of charge to help them in their class work. These vary. A student with a learning disability might get extra testing time or a quiet testing environment. A blind student would get books on tape or in Braille and a tape recorder to record lectures. Education services for students with disabilities are some of the best in the world, but more can be done to expand access to these services.

Health care is an area that is quite lacking for people with disabilities.

My parents’ insurance plan is very resistant about paying for my medical costs and care. At one point it became so bad that I had to apply for Medicaid. Medicaid helps hundreds of thousands of Americans with disabilities live independent lives and pays for the care we need. To think the Republicans in Congress want to turn Medicaid into block grants for the states! A progressive state like Vermont would keep a program for people with disabilities intact. But other states such as the Southern Republican strongholds might divert the money somewhere else and simply shut down these programs, leaving thousands of people with disabilities without coverage.

Third, we can make disability care assistance an easier process to navigate for Americans with disabilities. Many cannot work or aren’t ready to work. Families can’t afford to take care of their disabled children or adult family members who are too sick or infirm to partake in society. Bring back the CLASS Act and fully fund it this time. The CLASS Act was the brainchild of Senator Edward Kennedy and was passed as a rider within the Affordable Care Act. It would have created a government-run disability insurance program for all Americans. Unfortunately it was defunded by Republicans and has not been resurrected.

Fourth, we can unite all the scattered and underfunded state vocational rehabilitation programs under the banner of the federal government. Fund a federal system of work relief and job counselors for people with disabilities so they can find employment or help with employment. Right now I work with Pennsylvania’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. A federal vocational rehabilitation system would help many more people with disabilities and would have the benefit of far more funding than the state programs have.

We’ll see what the future holds for disabled Americans like me. As more and more equality legislation is passed we will have more and more of the same chances every other American has. To work and partake in society like everyone else is what we want.

For years we’ve been subject to mistreatment and then pity, and more mistreatment – not equality. There’s still a long way to go for equal access to society. But we’re getting there.

Image: Illustration for ADA checklist for polling places




Michael Leonard
Michael Leonard

Michael Leonard spends his time writing for a variety of progressive causes. In his spare time he writes fiction.