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Local News

Americans with Disabilities Act turns 25

Disability advocates: Landmark legislation has many shortcomings, successes

PLAINFIELD – A burning question bothers Katy Hoyer every time the 26-year-old with a master’s degree in social work finishes up a job interview: “Will this place hire me?”

And that question is often answered – weeks, maybe months, later – in the form of a potential employer’s unreturned phone call.

This happens, in part, Hoyer believes, because she has cerebral palsy – a chronic condition that affects body movement and muscle coordination.

“I mean, I think that it definitely has something to do with my disability,” Hoyer said. “But how much of it, I can’t tell ... just because they don’t come out and say it. But it’s hard just for the fact that I have such a desire to work.”

Twenty-five years ago today, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law.

The law was designed to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in the areas of employment, transportation, public accommodation and governmental services

Modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark legislation was viewed as one of the most sweeping pieces of civil rights legislation in years – aimed at fighting bigotry, improving quality of life, and setting accessibility standards for people with disabilities.

But has it accomplished all of what President George H.W. Bush sought out to do when he signed it into law July 26, 1990, on the south lawn of the White House?

That depends on who you ask.

Ask Ivan Bew, a 25-year-old college student, and you’ll learn that despite the ADA, public transportation and the stigma surrounding disabilities remain key issues in his life as he edges closer to graduation.

You’ll get a different answer from someone like Pam Heavens, the executive director of the Will-Grundy Center for Independent Living, who lived through the decades leading up the law’s passage — when public universities were largely inaccessible, doors to governmental buildings weren’t wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs, sidewalks lacked wheelchair-friendly curb cuts, and the Joliet train station didn’t have an elevator.

Still, regardless of who you ask, a reoccurring theme surfaces in the ebb and flow of each conversation: “There’s much work left to do.”

‘An unprecedented shift’

Heavens, who is 59 and has cerebral palsy, credits the ADA for bringing an unprecedented shift for what was, at the time of passage, considered a segregated population.

It raised social awareness, she said, while also bringing forth concrete changes, such as improved access to government buildings and businesses, and better job training services for people seeking employment.

But it was a long, uphill battle trying to get the ADA passed, Heavens said. The movement began years before its passage, but the fight intensified in the months and days leading up to the historical vote.

She described how protesters descended upon the U.S. Capitol in March 1990, shedding wheelchairs and crutches before crawling up the front steps to urge Congress to act on the legislation.

Among the photos hanging on the wall at the Will-Grundy Center for Independent Living is a black-and-white photo of two women – Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson – standing on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in June 1999.

Heavens said Curtis and Wilson, who had mental illness and developmental disabilities, sued the state of Georgia under the ADA in 1999, after having spent time in a mental institution long after their doctors said they could have entered into a community-based treatment program.

In a ruling handed down in June 1999, it was decided that the ADA prohibits “unjustified segregation” of individuals with disabilities.

“They are our heroines,” Heavens said. “It took a lot of courage for them them to go all the way to the Supreme Court.”

For every accomplishment that followed the ADA’s passage in 1990, there’s yet another challenge awaiting advocates pushing for more accessibility, she said.

“We can’t stop here,” she said.

After the ADA passed, Heavens recalls having battled with her previous condo building developer for some time to get certain housing accessibility accommodations as required by law.

‘The fear of the unknown’

The ADA address employment by prohibiting any and all type of employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, promotions, compensation, and job training, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

But people with disabilities, considered the largest minority population in the U.S., have a staggeringly high unemployment rate — 12.5 percent in 2014. That’s about twice the 5.9 percent for those with no disability, according to the the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To help bridge that gap, Trinity Services in New Lenox expanded its employment support services in December 2014 by opening The Branch, a center designed to help high school graduates with intellectual and other disabilities develop life skills and find employment, said Kevin Schaefer, associate director of adult learning.

Even with organizations like Trinity Services stepping up to help people with disabilities find employment, Schaefer said there are limited job opportunities in Will County due to the lack of readily available public transportation.

Schaefer said the center has several “solid relationships” with businesses willing to hire individuals with disabilities — Jewel-Osco, Harrah’s Casino, Meijers and Walgreens, to name a few. The greatest challenge, perhaps, in bringing down unemployment rates is the stigma attached to people with disabilities and employers’ own fears.

“It’s the fear. It’s the fear of the unknown,” Schaefer said. “It’s the fear of liability. What if the person gets hurt? What if others get hurt? It’s the idea of possibly having to afford more attention to that person.”

Dispelling those fears is where services providers like Trinity Services come in, he said, adding that Trinity often will communicate the person’s skills, along with work and volunteer history, to potential employers.

Schaefer said he hopes more employers consider hiring people with disabilities.

“It adds diversity within the workplace. There are employers that have customers with disabilities so going into a setting where they can see other people who have a disability who are working is idly important,” Schaefer said.

“It’s reflective of the community. ... And people with disabilities, they want to be independent,” he said. “They want to be self-sufficient and provide for themselves.”

‘Can you lift 10 pounds?’

Hoyer said she starts her day scouring the Internet for job openings in Will County.

And that’s how it’s been since she returned home nearly two years ago, having graduated in 2013 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a master’s degree in social work.

Hoyer said feels she is qualified for many of the jobs she’s applied for. During her time in Urbana-Champaign, she served as a mentor for incoming students with disabilities and successfully completed a seven-month internship at an Urbana hospital working as a inpatient rehabilitation social work intern.

She returned home to Plainfield with the goal of finding work in her career field. A mix of factors — including poor access to public transportation, seemingly reluctant employers, and a need for a personal care assistant — has made it difficult for her to find work, she said.

Reading through job descriptions can be discouraging. Hoyer will read through an application and see that the job fits perfectly with her skills set — but then there are questions like: Do you have a valid driver’s license? Reliable transportation? Can you lift 10 pounds?

And she has to answer no.

“These little things, they just add up. It’s frustrating,” Hoyer said. “I’m kind of getting the feeling these days that the descriptions I’m reading are really trying to fit me into this box that’s not a flexible one.”

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