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Coastal voices: ADA at 20 years old: Still work to do

America will soon celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act.

This landmark civil rights legislation was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. After centuries of exclusion, America’s disabled gained equal access to programs, facilities and services long denied them.  The law covers five broad areas, including employment, public entities/transportation, public accommodations/commercial facilities, telecommunications and miscellaneous technical provisions.

Roughly one in five people currently have a disability. For those people who are not currently disabled, statisticians predict that many will eventually become disabled. Aging, disease and random accidents increase the ranks of our disabled population daily. Nobody has immunity from joining the ranks of the disabled.

Our disabled population in Del Norte County mirrors the national norm. Interestingly, members of the “baby boom” generation are projected to measurably increase existing national disability numbers.

Prior to the ADA, little cachet was attached to the needs of America’s disabled. Architectural barriers abounded with little thought given including accessibility features in design. The ubiquitous curb or a single step often was enough to deny freedom of access for those with mobility impairments. Guide dogs were routinely barred from businesses under the guise of “no pets” policies. The history and scope of architectural and attitudinal barriers faced by America’s disabled before the ADA reads like a Stephen King novel.

What are some of the current realities for America’s disabled?  Spikes in national and state unemployment rates for all workers have recently been headline news. For example, in January of this year, the national unemployment rate was slightly over 10 percent with California’s exceeding  13 percent. According to the National Organization on Disability, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities routinely exceeds 65 percent. This isn’t a spike in the percentage, it’s the norm. Home ownership for America’s disabled is around 10 percent compared to non-disabled home ownership rates slightly over 70 percent. Disabled Americans vote at a rate 20 percent lower than their non-disabled counterparts. Poverty rates for America’s disabled are 60 percent higher than that of the non-disabled population. 

The goal of the ADA in a civil rights context is to allow Americans with disabilities to live independently, exercise self-determ­-

ination and freedom of choice, contribute materially to our society, pursue and prepare for productive and meaningful lifelong careers. Ultimately, the ADA seeks full inclusion and integration of the disabled into the American mainstream with unfettered access to all economic, political, educational and cultural benefits that are integral parts of our democracy.

As a nation and community, we have made great strides over the 20 years following implementation of the ADA. I urge that we continue to provide unified community support of the ADA. When we include our disabled peers in our workforce and all aspects of life, including the pursuit of happiness, we support the ADA and enrich lives. To do our part to “walk the talk” of the ADA, we must consciously work toward making Del Norte County a place where disabled residents and visitors are welcomed with inclusion and access.

John Ging is disability program navigator for the Del Norte Workforce Center.

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