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Is the disabilities act working?
Critics argue law vague and misused
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Linda Mastandrea was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 3 and has long used a wheelchair to get around. But she has not let her physical problems stand in her way.
At 36, she is one of the world's foremost wheelchair athletes, setting four world records in track and winning 15 gold medals and five silver medals in international competitions.
Mastandrea is also a lawyer for the department of human services for the state of Illinois, a corporate ambassador for The Hartford Life insurance company, and a nationally known spokeswoman for the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law 10 years ago Wednesday.
Because of the ADA, Mastandrea said, the estimated 54 million disabled people in the United States have protection against discrimination in the workplace; can access buildings, stadiums, movie theaters; and can exercise their rights and privileges like the non-disabled.
"When the ADA came into being in 1990, it changed the way I could think about myself and I could operate. ... I could go in on my own steam," she said. "Having the ADA out there really served to open a lot of doors to me but also opened my eyes because it made me see that I had other options."
Millions of other disabled people feel the same way, according to advocates for the disabled. They consider the law a guarantor of their civil rights and say it gives them the green light to fully participate in society.
The 10th anniversary of the signing of the ADA is prompting reflection about what the law set out to achieve -- barring discrimination against the disabled -- and how the law has increased awareness and acceptance of those with physical and mental disabilities.
"In 10 years, you don't just change the world. There is so much more to be done," said Kirsten Nyrop, executive director of United Cerebral Palsy. "It's a great first step."
At the same time, decade-long ADA debates are coming into sharper focus: Is the law constitutional? Is it unfair to the business sector? Are its principles being twisted to justify spurious lawsuits?
Critics say they are not against equal rights for the disabled. But the ADA, they say, may not be the best vehicle to ensure and expand those rights.
"The ADA was a well-intended but very seriously flawed piece of legislation," said Ed Hudgins, director of regulatory studies at the conservative Cato Institute.
The law has "produced benefits in a far more costly manner than was necessary, and in some cases has actually harmed the very group it is meant to help," he said.
What is the ADA?
The ADA defines a disabled person as one with a physical or mental impairment that "substantially limits" one or more "major life activities." The person must have a "record" of the impairment or must be "regarded" as having a history of problems, according to the law.
The ADA bars job discrimination, requires disabled access to buildings and services, and mandates that transportation and telecommunications are made disabled friendly.
In providing a rationale for the law, Congress wrote 10 years ago that 43 million Americans have one or more disabilities, including those born with disabilities and those who acquire health and physical problems later in life through accidents, age or other causes.
Advocacy groups for the disabled and the federal government estimate there are now 54 million disabled Americans in the United States.
The goal of the ADA, Congress wrote, was to "assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency" for the disabled community.
The ADA is "such an American law when you think about it because the idea is you will have the opportunity to become a part of the society," said Paul Tupper, who was paralyzed in a car crash.
"In other countries, families will have to take care of you, it (would be) inconceivable that you will go out and live independently," added Tupper, who works on disability issues for Massachusetts Department of Public Health in Boston.
What the ADA prohibits
The ADA's job discrimination protections apply to companies with 15 or more employees.
That means disabled people may not be denied jobs solely because of their disabilities. Additionally, employers must make "reasonable accommodations" so disabled workers can perform the essential aspects of their jobs.
The law also says public and private buildings -- "public accommodations" -- must allow disabled access with wheelchair ramps and the like. That provision covers everything from the White House to your hometown football stadium.
Additionally, the law says all public services should be accessible by the disabled. That means, for instance, government brochures should be printed in Braille for the benefit of the blind.
Existing structures must be modified within reasonable bounds and new construction must include disabled access in the design. Old or historic structures are exempt in some cases.
Finally, the law says the disabled must have access to telecommunications and public transportation.
One outgrowth of the telecommunications provision is the availability of "relay services" which allow the hearing impaired to place phone calls through trained operators who "relay" the messages to the intended parties.
A consequence of the transportation provision has been the use of special buses and vans for the disabled.
The ADA's most visible benefit is in the public accommodation area, said Gina McDonald, a board member of the president-appointed National Council on Disability.
Because of the ADA, McDonald, who has hearing problems, a sleep disorder and a brain injury, said she can ask a movie theater to provide an assisted-listening device, which resembles a small transistor radio with headphones, so she can hear the dialogue and music clearly.
Because of the ADA, the state of Massachusetts pays for a live-in caregiver for Tupper.
Because of the ADA, Mastandrea can board Chicago buses without too much trouble.
Movies, commercials and television shows are showing more disabled people, diminishing the stigma attached to being "different."
Nyrop said more and more dot-com companies are cropping up to help the disabled, proof that the business community recognizes that serving the disabled translates to dollars.
She said 73 percent of disabled people head households, 48 percent are the principal shoppers for their households and 58 percent own homes.
FCC mandates requiring phone and TV services for the handicapped
National Council on Disability
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