On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. Few laws have affected the lives of so many Americans, and even fewer have made such sweeping positive change. Thirty years later, we credit the ADA for improving accessibility—requiring elevators, ramps, and curb cuts. We credit it for reasonable accommodations and revolutionized telecommunications for individuals with hearing and speech disabilities. More than this, the ADA is a civil rights law, which prohibits discrimination often faced by individuals with disabilities. The law was the first step in guaranteeing equal opportunity to employment, housing, education, transportation and more for individuals with disabilities. Thirty years after the ADA’s passage, we celebrate the landmark law, and commit to the necessary reforms still needed to eliminate barriers for individuals with disabilities.
As Chair of the New York State Senate Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Committee, it’s been my goal to ensure equal access to independence, employment, and quality of life improvements for individuals with disabilities. My work has included authoring and passing a number of bills to this end like the NY ABLE Act and the Inspire New York Act. The NY ABLE ACT allows New Yorkers with disabilities to save for expenses related to their disability, without risking their eligibility for Medicaid or Supplemental Security. The Inspire New York Act provides a tax credit to employers who hire individuals with a developmental disability. Further, to help destigmatize disabilities in New York, I worked to update the State’s accessibility logo and remove the word “handicapped” from new or replaced signage. We know despite these reforms, barriers to equality remain in our state.
To help ensure equality, we should start with opposing the proposed $238 million in funding cuts to the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD). These cuts will harm progress we have made in New York, such as securing Direct Support Professionals (DSPs), who care for our most vulnerable, the pay increases they were promised. DSPs have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic since day one without adequate personal protection equipment, and now they stand to lose salary increases they deserve. With these proposed cuts, essential service providers who offer housing and support services to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities will be gravely impacted, creating ripple effects that hurt those we should be protecting during a pandemic. Rather than slash funding, our federal government should be taking the necessary action to provide funding to States to protect individuals with disabilities.
It’s imperative the federal government work to eliminate barriers for individuals with disabilities by addressing unemployment. Thirty years after the ADA’s passage, the unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities remains more than double that of their non-disabled peers leaving many in poverty. Under current law, employers can pay sub-minimum wages to workers with disabilities—a predatory and unjust practice. Despite attempts to change the law passing through the U.S. House of Representatives, the law was stopped in the U.S. Senate. On top of that, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) remains inadequately funded, which is supposed to ensure that children with disabilities get the education and training they need to succeed. Ensuring a quality education, regardless of ability, should not be a political matter. These are just a few examples of a seemingly endless list of barriers that stand in the way of true equality for individuals with disabilities. However, these barriers represent a roadmap of actionable items that we must address to continue our progress in the spirit of the ADA’s thirtieth anniversary.
As we commemorate the ADA, we cannot backpedal in the fight for inclusion and equality. We must understand that this law’s passage did not mark an end to this fight, rather, a new beginning. Let’s be alert to the gaps that remain, continue our work to level the playing field, and fight to ensure inclusivity in all aspects of our society.