As the landmar Americans with Disabilities Act(ADA) celebrates its anniversary each July, it is an important time to reflect on the impact the law has had on improving accessibility and shaping attitudes and perceptions about people with disabilities – and how that progress might shape the future.

“What’s interesting is that we have an ADA generation – people who are around 25 years old who have lived all or part of their lives with a disability and the ADA and have not necessarily experienced egregious disability discrimination,” said Lee Page, senior associate advocacy director for Paralyzed Veterans of America. “Having said that, we continue to look forward because there is so much that can be improved.”

Paralyzed Veterans helped lead the charge for passage of the ADA in 1990 and has since fought against efforts to weaken it. Since its enactment, the ADA has been influential in fighting discrimination in areas of employment, public services, public accommodations, transportation, and telecommunications for individuals with disabilities.

Still, while much progress has been made over the years, the nation has not yet fully realized the law’s intent. Architecture, transportation, employment, and housing remain areas where drastic improvements can be made to open up opportunities for people with disabilities.

“The ADA was intended as a civil rights bill to establish the foundation that people with disabilities have the right to full participation in all aspects of society, including the right to seek and be hired into jobs that advance their economic self-sufficiency,” said Susan Prokop, senior associate advocacy director for Paralyzed Veterans of America. “While the country has fulfilled that ideal in some respects, the workforce participation rate of people with disabilities is not very good; it remains stuck at 30 percent.”

Transportation – from air travel to trains, taxis and buses – also remains a challenge. Companies like Amtrak are still working towards ADA compliance, while passenger vessels including cruise ships are waiting for final regulations on accessibility from the United States Access Board. Air travel – while addressed prior to the ADA in the 1986 Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) – also can prove problematic for individuals with disabilities, Page said.

“In some cases, the airlines have met the requirement of the law but not necessarily the spirit of the law,” Page said. “The reality is that assistive devices can be damaged, which really puts a cramp on travel for someone with a disability.”

Paralyzed Veterans of America along with other advocacy groups also will remain vigilant to ensure states are abiding by the Supreme Court’s 1999 Olmstead decision, which ruled that the ADA requires individuals with disabilities be integrated into the community rather than forced into nursing homes and other institutions. Government data shows that by 2010, just 12 states had made acceptable progress in implementing Olmstead.

“That’s the next step of the ADA – to make sure that services are delivered in the least restrictive setting,” Prokop said.

Meanwhile, the United States also has a role to play in promoting accessibility around the world, which requires in part the ratification by the U.S. Senate of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), a treaty that would promote and protect the rights of people with disabilities in more than 150 countries around the world. While the treaty is modeled after the ADA, the United States is one of only a few countries that have not ratified it.

Still, while much work remains, the ADA has been a positive force not only in improving accessibility but boosting the public’s attitudes and perceptions of the contributions and rights of people with disabilities. Looking forward, it is those attitudes and perceptions that ultimately will pave the future of the ADA and accessibility.

“Seeing people with disabilities out in the mainstream of life participating 100 percent makes everyone recognize that disability is part of the human condition and not something to be feared, patronized or specialized,” Page said. “Twenty-six years is a long time, but we’re still at the beginning because eventually all human aspects will be seamless – to the point where all people are truly equal.”

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