When I talk to people in the United States about disability and the need for accommodations, I am usually met with a bit of bewilderment. “You mean there’s still more work to be done on accommodations? I thought all that had been taken care of.” These are people who are used to seeing wheelchair ramps at the entrance to government buildings, used to seeing the hand switch for wheelchair users to open automatic doors, used to seeing the braille at the ATMs. Given their observations of those existing accommodations and a minimal awareness of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that mandates those accommodations, they assume that there’s been a consensus on the need to provide accommodations, a law mandating those agreed-on accommodations, and general compliance with that law.
As we well know, that is far from the truth. None of those assumptions are as true or are interpreted as broadly as people tend to assume. There is no general consensus on the need to provide accommodations for the broad range of disabilities that exist – there is general agreement that people who use wheelchairs should have access to government buildings, but there is nothing even close to general agreement on how to accommodate people with depression or even whether depression is a disability “deserving” of accommodation. The US does have a law mandating accommodations – but there are not equivalents in every country and there are significant holes in the ADA itself, often putting the burden of requesting accommodations and demonstrating a need for them on the person with a disability. Finally, the idea that agencies and businesses affirmatively comply with the ADA, obviating the need for enforcement, is just patently false.
A recent federal court decision in underlines all of these realities. In 2005, the American Council of the Blind filed a lawsuit against the Social Security Administration (SSA) “to compel SSA to provide alternative formats of communication that would enable [people with visual impairments] to have more equal access to participate in SSA programs.” (Court documents and information available through DREDEF’s site.) It took until 2009 for a court to agree and order SSA that it is required to issue notices to people with visual impairments in a format they can read – in Braille, large print, e-mail that can be read by a screen reader, computer disks, or audiotape recordings.
This lawsuit undercuts each of the assumptions above. First, there is clearly not consensus on providing accommodations, even to what would be considered a relatively “easy” impairment to accommodate – it is easy to anticipate the functional difficulties that a person with a visual impairment would encounter when presented with a written notice. A lot of these people – 250,000 of them – are getting benefits from SSA specifically because they have a visual impairment, so they’ve given SSA extensive documentation of those impairments and information on the functional limitations caused by the impairments. A much larger group – about 3 million in total – get retirement benefits from SSA. At any rate, SSA knows that these people have visual impairments and has detailed information on how those impairments affect them. And it still has not provided accommodations.
But what about the second assumption – there’s the ADA, right? It turns out that the SSA is not subject to the requirements of the ADA! The ADA applies only to state and local governments and agencies that receive federal funding – it does not apply to federal agencies such as SSA. (Raise your hand if you knew that – few people do!) The only disability rights law that applies is a precursor to the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. While the requirements regarding accommodations from government agencies are largely similar, the Rehabilitation Act does provide limited rights in comparison to the ADA.
It’s also very clear that the SSA – despite being the primary provider of cash and medical benefits for people with disabilities – did not consider that it had any obligation to provide accommodations. When individual plaintiffs with visual disabilities requested that they be given notices in alternative formats, they were simply told that no other formats were available. This included notices to which people must respond within 10 days or risk losing their benefits. Even when they were initially sued in 2005, SSA argued that the Rehabilitation Act “did not even apply” to the issue of notices to people with visual impairments. Similarly, SSA did not consider itself obligated to let benefits recipients know that they had accommodation rights under the Rehabilitation Act and laying out a process for them to request and enforce those rights.
The result of the litigation is that SSA is now required to develop a procedure to 1) notify benefits recipients of their rights to accommodations for visual impairments and 2) provide notices in alternative formats when recipients request them. Which is certainly a good thing – but one that I would simply expect from a government agency that administers disability benefits, rather than having to be ordered by a federal court after 5 years of litigation. And if accommodations that are this common sense, from a federal agency set up to deal with people with disabilities, are so hard to obtain and enforce, that demonstrates how very far we are from a society where PWDs are meaningfully accommodated.