1990 law provided many opportunities for diisabled people
Tallahassee Democrat 97/23/2015
written by: Gerald Ensley
Twin sisters Leslie Kitterman and Lynn Picolo, 60, were born with Osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic condition characterized by bones that break easily. They’ve spent almost their entire lives relying on wheelchairs for mobility.
That hasn’t kept them from rewarding lives. They both earned degrees from Florida State University. Kitterman, married for 30 years, is an analyst with the state Department of Financial Services. Picolo recently retired as a vocational rehabilitation counselor. They’re active in their church and are rabid FSU football fans, who attend every game.
Their fulfilling lives are a tribute to their parents, who taught them they could do anything they wanted to do. Their successful careers are a tribute to their determination to “carry myself with dignity in a way that people could dwell on my intellect not on my physical challenges,” Picolo said.
And in no small part, their lives are a tribute to one of the nation’s most important pieces of civil rights legislation: the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibited discrimination based on physical or mental disabilities.
The ADA – which celebrates its 25th anniversary this weekend – legally eliminated barriers for people with disabilities in employment, public transportation, public accommodations, architecture and telecommunications. And though challenges still remain, the ADA has proven as culture-changing as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which eliminated discrimination on the basis of race or gender.
“When we were younger, we were not even allowed to go to school; that’s no longer true,” Kitterman said. “People with challenges now are more and more integrated into the professional world. For us, we can see there’s been a lot of improvement. But as with everything, there is still more to be done.”
Tallahassee will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ADA with events Friday and Saturday.
On Friday, a dozen organizations will team to sponsor the Celebrate Independence event. Hundreds of residents with disabilities and supporters will march from Park Avenue and Adams Street to City Hall for a rally, speeches and exhibits, followed by music and lunch across the street at the Capitol Plaza. Among the speakers at City Hall will be John Kemp, a quadruple amputee who helped pass the 1990 l aw and is one of the leading national advocates for people with disabilities.
On Saturday, Ability 1st will host its ninth annual “1st Evening of Comedy,” featuring Nina G., billed as the nation’s only female comic who stutters.
The celebrations lead to Sunday’s anniversary of when the ADA was signed into law – and opened the door for millions of Americans to more fully participate in life.
“It’s been a game-changer, not only for me but for the 57 million Americans with disabilities. It is full inclusion into education, employment, recreation, community, religion – the works,” said J.R. Harding, a Tallahassee disability advocate and quadriplegic. “To use a historical analysis, it was a leap frog from the dark ages of segregation and separate-is-equal to a renaissance of the enlightenment, synergy and enthusiasm of diversity.”
A huge step toward inclusiveness
The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush. It followed a four-year lobbying effort by the National Council on Disability.
“The ADA was transformational,” said Kemp, co-founder of the New York-based American Association of Persons with Disabilities. “It really looked at how do we broaden out our use of our community and widen the aperture of our mindsets on what people can do and how they can be included in all aspects of life.”
The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of any physical, mental, medical and mobility impairments, whether temporary or permanent. It prohibits employers from firing or refusing to hire someone with a disability. It mandates public transportation facilities, such as buses, trains and planes, be accessible to people with disabilities. It requires telecommunications companies provide devices and services for people who are deaf and others who are able to use a standard phone.
Most noticeably, it requires all public accommodations and buildings built after 1990 to be accessible. That has meant building restrooms with wider stalls and wheelchair level support bars; creating street-curb cut-ins to sidewalks; adding ramps to buildings and airports; and making hotel rooms with roll-in showers, buildings with automatic opening doors and parking lots with up-close reserved spaces.
“The ADA was huge; it was the first real civil rights for people with disabilities,” said Dan Moore, executive director of Ability 1st. “There had been so much exclusion built into our society – not from maliciousness but without forethought. The ADA put an end to that.”
Proponents note the ADA not only helped people with disabilities but all of society. Structural changes have helped the able-bodied: curb cut-ins used by bicyclists, automatic doors used by people with their arms loaded. Accessibility improvements helped commerce.
“The 57 million disabled citizens have a disposable income of $1 trillion,” Harding said. “Twenty years ago, we couldn’t leave the house because there was no parking space for us, no ramp to get into the coffee shop. The disabled couldn’t come in and spend their money.”
ADA hasn’t solved all problems
For all the progress allowed by the ADA, challenges remain.
Though the unemployment rate for the general populace remains around 6 percent, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is nearly 13 percent. One survey reported only 20 percent of people with disabilities who want to work have jobs â€” compared to 68 percent of non-disabled people.
“I’d like to see in the next 20, 30 years that number get to 50 percent of those with physical and mental challenges working side by side (with non-disabled workers),” said Lynn Picolo. “It’s all about attitude. Either people want to provide opportunity or they don’t. I believe more people are more willing than they have been and I hope they continue to be that way.”
Moore said there also remain challenges with businesses understanding their responsibilities under the ADA. Many professional services – physicians, dentists, attorneys – fail to provide sign language interpreters or other accommodations for deaf patients and clients. That may not be a problem for basic services – but it’s a real issue if a deaf person wants to understand the intricacies of his diagnosis.
“People get, ‘I have to have a ramp to my doorstep,’ ” Moore said. “But communication accessibility often can be an equal barrier.”
No time to rest on the past
That’s not to say the reach of the ADA isn’t expanding. Florida State University’s Student Disability Resource Center serves nearly 2,000 students a year, helping students with obvious disabilities (sight, hearing and mobility issues) and “invisible disabilities” (learning and attention deficit disorders, clinical depression). The university helps those students with everything from special testing programs to counseling to transportation.
“The way we’ve been able to provide the access students need to show their academic capabilities has been one of the more phenomenal points of ADA,” said Alan Acosta, the center’s interim director.
The goal 25 years down the road is to keep expanding inclusion, keep breaking down barriers to full employment, keep providing opportunities for all.
“The world is changing. You hope there is an attitude of, ‘Yes, everyone can work and be a contributing members of society,’ ” Picolo said. “The ADA was just a vehicle to get it started. It’s up to society to keep it going.”
Events for Tallahassee’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Informational displays at City Hall
9:30 a.m. Celebrate Independence march to City Hall
9:45 a.m. Cutting of Celebration Cake at City Hall
10 a.m. ADA Celebration program, featuring John Kemp, state and local officials
11 a.m. Entertainment, activities and lunch at Capitol Courtyard
6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. “1st Evening of Comedy,” with Nina G., Theatre Tallahassee, 1861 Thomasville Road. Tickets $45, available online (www.Ability1st.info). For more information, call 850-575-9621.