At 30, the Americans With Disabilities Act Has Opened Doors, But Still Meets Resistance, Professor Says
People with disabilities crawl up the steps of the U.S. Capitol in March 1990 to advocate for passage of what became the Americans With Disabilities Act. iSchool Professor Paul Jaeger, co-chair of the UMD President's Commission on Disabilities, said the act has made an extraordinary difference in the day-to-day experiences of people with disabilities.
From ramps at building entrances to subtle features tucked away on websites, the effects of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed 30 years ago this month, mostly blend into the landscape.
But they loom large for people who need them. Without the landmark legislation, “You very well might not be talking to me,” said Professor Paul Jaeger of the University of Maryland College of Information Studies, who is visually impaired and is co-chair of the President’s Commission on Disability Issues.
“My entire career in higher education—as a student and as an employee—has occurred since the implementation of the ADA,” he said. “I have no way of knowing what opportunities would have been not available to me without the civil rights guarantees of that law.”
Today, more than 2,400 students rely on resources available through the university’s Accessibility and Disability Service.
Jaeger spoke to Maryland Today about how the ADA has played out at universities and beyond.
What was the ADA intended to do?
Civil rights for disabled people in the U.S. basically came in two waves: In the 1970s, the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act opened the doors to federal government and entities receiving federal funding and K-12 public education, but most everything else wasn't covered. So the ADA in 1990 filled in much of the rest. It required accommodations in an enormous range of areas, like state and local governments, businesses, transportation, restaurants and other places of public accommodation. The ADA is essential for social equality for disabled people.
How would our campus look different without it?
Universities were covered by the Rehabilitation Act so long as they were receiving federal funds; the ADA, however, explicitly required postsecondary education to provide equitable services to disabled people. At a university, these laws promote equity in admissions, academics, living spaces, social and extracurricular activities, transportation, counseling, placements and internships for students, as well as in hiring and employment for staff and faculty members. The most noticeable difference without these laws would be what’s missing, which is people with disabilities. Next time you go into a classroom, ask yourself: How would you get into the room and where would you sit if you used a wheelchair? Those kinds of things—signs for accessible entrances, ramps, automatic doors—are some of the most obvious things that would be missing without these laws.
Beyond physical changes to increase access, what else did ADA do at UMD and other universities?
The University of Maryland was likely already complying with Rehabilitation Act standards when the ADA was passed in 1990, but the ADA nevertheless would have influenced life at the university for disabled people. First, its passage made people generally more aware of the rights of disabled people. Second, the great range of other parts of society that the ADA made more inclusive helped make it possible for disabled people to succeed as students and employees. Third, it emphatically reinforced the importance of civil rights for disabled people in all contexts, including higher education. For universities not already following the Rehabilitation Act guidelines, it set off a very significant period of transition when they had to figure out how to fairly admit and then fairly integrate disabled students into the student body, and how to better and more fairly deal with disability and hiring processes. Another thing that might not be entirely obvious is the need to make online classes accessible, and to make the internet accessible. The internet has really played a key role in major aspects of life for 25 years, and yet as a country, we’re still struggling to make it accessible.
How is that aspect of fulfilling ADA requirements being carried out?
Our own university is leading in that regard. The lab that has created many of the technologies, software products and guidelines to make the internet accessible is the TRACE Center, which is based here and led by Dr. Gregg Vanderheiden and Dr. Jonathan Lazar, both professors in the College of Information Studies. TRACE has been at the forefront of accessibility design for about half a century in computer operating systems, mobile devices and even the terminals you use for ticketing at train stations. In a lot of cases, people who do not have disabilities have been the beneficiary. You might just be using a program or website that is really clearly and logically constructed, and that’s a result of work to make it accessible.
How do you think continued ADA implementation—and generally removing barriers for people with disabilities—is going nationally?
It’s like any civil rights law. It’s always a “getting there” process rather than an arrival process. It tends to fluctuate based on who is in charge of enforcement and implementation. And we’re in a position now with a presidential administration that is not particularly keen on these laws. Among other things, they have taken down guidance for disabled people or parents of children with disabilities on a number of federal websites on how to exercise their rights. And this attitude really affects how the laws are being enforced.
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