The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, is often pointed to as an example of progressive legislation in the United States that magically solves the problem of discrimination against people with disabilities. It’s a Federal civil rights law that is designed to outline and protect basic rights for people with disabilities for people across the United States and deals with employment, public transit, and many other aspects of life.
Anti-accommodation folks snarl about the ADA, arguing that the requirements are excessive and unreasonable and that having to follow them takes too much time and money. This particular disability rights activist has mixed feelings about it. For one thing, yay, a law that says it is not ok to discriminate against people with disabilities. But discrimination is not something you can legislate away, and laws are only useful inasmuch as they are enforced.
‘Enforcement’ usually requires the money and time to go to court to sue for violations, along with a solid case that would be difficult to challenge or throw out. Here in California, seven Deaf employees of the State of California, along with Deaf and Hard of Hearing State Workers United, just filed suit in a San Francisco court against several state agencies along with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. They are charging that they are not being adequately accommodated under ADA rules.
‘…the state frequently substitutes insufficient or ineffective forms of communication — lip reading, e-mail, videophones and interpretations by co-workers unskilled in sign language — rather than provide qualified interpreters.’ (source)
‘…the state regularly fails to fulfill interpreter requests for staff meetings, job trainings, departmental meetings, performance reviews and meetings with consumers and the public at large, and that the state lacks adequate evacuation procedures or warning lights to alert its deaf employees in an emergency.’ (source)
Failure to accommodate Deaf and hard of hearing workers, in addition to being frustrating and potentially dangerous for those workers, is also bad for the public. Some state workers may not be able to communicate easily with members of the public and conversely, Deaf and hard of hearing members of the public can’t communicate easily with with hearing state workers when the state refuses to provide accommodations. California is often touted as a model state when it comes to access for people with disabilities. This lawsuit illustrates exactly how ‘model’ we are.
The reason we’re more accessible than some other states? It’s not because California is so very progressive. It’s primarily because the disability rights movement is very strong in the Bay Area and pushes for access and full inclusion relentlessly. A lot of victories have been won here, but we still have a long way to go.
The plaintiffs are attempting to get the suit certified as a class action so that all of the 1,500 Deaf and hard of hearing state employees in California can join. They are also not seeking financial damages. The suit is being filed solely to compel the State of California to obey the law.
Let that sink in for a moment.
The ADA is supposed to be this great triumph. A ramp on every building and a TTY phone in every office, right? The way people complain about how difficult it is to provide accommodations, you’d think that everyone in the United States was personally ensuring that every environment they were in complied scrupulously with ADA regulations. A lot of these regulations are actually not terribly helpful and poorly constructed; parts of the ADA are great on paper but not so great in practice. Others are unclear, so no one is really sure about how to enforce them.
Violations are the norm, not the exception to the rule. Many people seem to treat the ADA as optional, as something that looks rather pretty but doesn’t actually need to be followed, even as they pay lip service to the idea that they don’t discriminate, as some workplaces do by putting ‘an equal opportunity employer’ in their ads. And people who need accommodation that they are entitled to under the law usually can’t just ask nicely. They have to sue.
I often want to ask opponents of the ADA how they would feel if they had to sue for the right to enter buildings. Communicate with their coworkers. Obtain safe housing. On the most fundamental level, to sue for the right to exist at all. How they would feel knowing that landlords, employers, and members of the public resent them for being a ‘nuisance’ and get angry with them when they sue to protect their supposedly federally guaranteed rights.
People should not have to sue to be able to do their jobs. People should not have to sue to be able to communicate with each other. Yet, they do, on a pretty regular basis, and a lot of those cases never make the news.