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Americans With Disabilities Act Reaches 20th Anniversary

By Suzanne Robitaille
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, July 23 (HealthDay News) -- As the nation prepares to mark the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act on Monday, a new survey finds that the law has not made meaningful progress in improving the quality of life for people with disabilities.

Many social and economic gaps still exist between the 54 million Americans with disabilities and those without, according to a survey conducted by the Kessler Foundation/National Organization on Disability. The report found that the disabled still lag in key areas such as employment, access to health care and socializing.

The survey shows that more must be done to help people with disabilities get ahead, said Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability. "While education has improved considerably, joblessness has not. We as a nation must figure this out," she said.

Some key findings from the survey:

  • 19 percent of people with disabilities said they did not get the medical care they needed in the past year, with lack of insurance coverage cited as the top reason.
  • 21 percent of disabled working-age Americans had a job in the past year, versus 59 percent for those without disabilities.
  • 17 percent of people with disabilities have not graduated from high school, compared to 22 percent in 2000 and 40 percent in 1986 -- the first year the survey was taken.
  • 48 percent of people with disabilities eat out at a restaurant twice a month, compared to 75 percent of those without disabilities.
  • 34 percent of disabled people say inadequate transportation is a problem, compared to 16 percent of those without disabilities, a gap that has widened 5 percentage points since 1986.

Meanwhile, a different survey looking at the impact of the law on the disabled community came to a more positive conclusion. This online survey, released Friday and created by Lex Frieden, one of the crafters of the original law who is now a professor of biomedical informatics with the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, found that two-thirds of people with disabilities feel the law has been the most significant influence on their lives in the past two decades. The respondents added that the greatest improvements have come in areas that include access for the disabled to public places, transportation and public awareness.

Signed into law in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act protects people with physical or mental disabilities from discrimination. A disability is defined as any condition that impairs one or more major life activities, and the law was expanded in 2008 to include chronic health conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy and cancer.

Glazer said programs like Social Security, which pays cash and health benefits to people with disabilities who cannot work and earn less than $1,000 a month, discourages the disabled from re-entering the workforce. "We have to fix this system so people with disabilities can go back to work, whether it's temporary, part-time or full-time, without fear of immediately losing their safety net."

One bright spot in the survey is political participation, where the gap appeared to close completely in the 2008 Presidential election season. In the survey, 59 percent of both disabled and non-disabled people say they voted. In other election years, such as 1996 and 2000, the gap was higher.

President Obama included a disability platform in his campaign, which likely influenced voting rates, Glazer noted. Obama's initiatives include health reform, which will give the disabled better access to affordable health care, adding more workers with disabilities to the federal government workforce, and extending tax credits to businesses that do the same.

Even with this push from Washington, D.C., the majority of those in the disability community isn't convinced that the ADA has had an impact. In the survey, 61 percent said the law has not made a difference in their lives. Another 23 percent said the ADA has made a positive impact, and 4 percent said it has made their lives worse.

"I do not think the ADA has helped all that much," said Michael Saggese, 32, an account executive at TecAccess, a Rockville, Va.-based information technology firm. Saggese has limited movement in his body and uses a wheelchair as the result of a traumatic brain injury he sustained in a car accident. He said he had difficulty finding a job after college, and landed his current role through a counselor at the Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services, who helped him network with TecAccess.

Though the survey included participants of all ages, the younger generation -- particularly those who grew up with the ADA -- is more likely to embrace it, says Rodger DeRose, president and CEO of Kessler Foundation, a nonprofit that funds rehabilitation research and employment programs. "Acceptance of people with disabilities is far greater today. Younger people have adapted to the social changes brought about by the ADA that an older generation has had difficulty with."

For Eric Wright, 25, the ADA has been a factor for almost his entire life. He was born with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get to his job at the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, D.C., where he helps the agency comply with federal requirements for making the agency's electronic and information technology accessible to the disabled.

Wright participated in individual education plans (IEPs) throughout grade school, and in college he used a note taker in classes and was given extra time on tests because it took him longer to type. "There was never a point in my life where, if you saw me outside my home, that you wouldn't know I had a disability," Wright said. "But, thanks to the ADA, the people around me -- including my family, teachers and employers -- knew that I shouldn't be excluded from a normal life."

Disability activists are hoping to use the anniversary to encourage more collaboration between business, government and nonprofits, with a goal of bringing more education and job opportunities to the disability community. "As these two areas improve, other quality-of-life indicators are sure to follow," Glazer said.

More information

The U.S. Department of Justice has more on the Americans with Disabilities Act.

SOURCES: Carol Glazer, president, National Organization on Disability; Rodger DeRose, president and CEO, Kessler Foundation; Michael Saggese, account executive, TecAccess, Rockville, Va.; Eric Wright, Internal Revenue Service, Washington, D.C.

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