Understanding Disability and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

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The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

In 1993 the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in North America went on record to heartily recommend full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). This is a voluntary compliance. Religious organizations are not subject to the ADA and it is still up to each church to agree to follow what the Synod recommends. Compliance is still incomplete in or outside churches. What is the ADA really about?

What the ADA requires: The ADA requires reasonable, system-wide preparation of our environments and services so that they are, or will be accessible to people who have severe impairments. This differs from previous efforts to help when a need was perceived. The ADA mandates reasonable changes to our environment and to the way we do things in advance of expressed need, and that we also be prepared to provide for the unexpected, but reasonable needs of people with disabilities in a timely way. The ADA also mandated public notification that accommodation was available and requires communication and discussion when a new accommodation request is made. Ignorance of the law, lack of preparation, and silence are all violations of the law.

Why the ADA is needed: Our environment, our interactions, and our services are all increasingly under our control. Physical space and the mechanisms of our interactions with one another are not wild, spontaneous, uncontrollable, or unknown. To a great extent they are intentionally planned and created. Yet, these things continue to be built and created for only a limited segment of the population and justified by reasons that unnecessarily exclude people with disabilities even if that is not the conscious intention. With a little foresight and without radically changing the purposes of what we create, we can build and create in a way that includes rather than excludes people with disabilities.

What the ADA costs: Most accommodations cost little or nothing. Some may cost as much as up to 20% of a maintenance, remodeling, or new equipment budget. That 20% estimate is equal to the proportion of the population the ADA benefits. In addition, there may be a steep learning curve to begin with and ongoing learning needed thereafter.

Why ADA compliance is incomplete: Since the days of Moses, a law was required to stop people from abusing or hurting people who are disabled (Lev. 19:14; Deut. 27:18). There always were, and still are people who are fearful of, and hateful toward people with disabilities. Furthermore, many people deny their own impairments or the fact that they may acquire a disability in their lifetime. Also, despite the large number of people with disabilities, many people will not ask for help, especially those who have a hidden impairment such as a vision or hearing loss, a learning disability, or pain. A person in a wheelchair being dropped by kindhearted helpers is one graphic example of why people will not ask for help. Even Christians who would try to help can be too inefficient and too inconsistent to do an effective job of helping. It can be too difficult, embarrassing, futile, and even too dangerous to ask for help. Thus, there is resistance to the ADA from those required to provide accommodation, which is called disability discrimination, and also denial, and avoidance of requesting help, by those who could be protected by the law.

Five Key Disability Concepts

1) Definition of Disability: A disability is created by specific parts of the environment.  A person is not disabled simply because he or she is born with or acquires a slight, moderate, or severe, uncorrectable, long-term limitation or loss of function. People still function with their other abilities and with special tools or techniques. For example, large print, or wheelchairs, hearing aids, or individualized learning styles may help. However, a limitation becomes a disability during interactions with behaviors, products, services, or environments that could be made accessible, but that instead are left inaccessible, such as buildings with only stairs, or only using small print, or a speaking volume that is too soft or too loud, or teaching techniques that ignore an individual’s learning needs.

2) Denial: A common response to disability is denial of having an impairment or of ever becoming disabled. The denial may be about the functioning of someone in our family.  It can be seen in the refusal to talk about disability. However, impairments are normal. Over 60 million Americans (1 in 5), and 4.4 million Canadians (1 in 7), have a functional limitation or loss. These are common human variations which, in interaction with certain aspects of the environment may lead to a disability. Denial is also found in the idea that nothing more can be done to help once the medical field has done all that it can do. Actually, much can be done easily and inexpensively to diminish or remove a disability. We can change behaviors and environments so that they enable rather than disable.

3) Degrees of Human Variation: Statistics are used to describe what we call normal  or average. They allow for the mass production of things and processes and for making decisions that affect masses of people. Most of us fall between extremes, somewhere around a "normal" level. However, one size does not fit all. Athletes or geniuses, or people who cannot walk, talk, see, hear, read, learn, or use their hands well vary in functioning and limitations. For example, normal vision is an acuity of 20/20, but some people have a 20/10, 20/20, 20/30 or 20/40 acuity. That 30 foot range is all labeled normal. Low vision is an acuity between 20/60 and 20/400. That is a 340 foot range. Human traits like seeing, hearing, walking, reading, or learning ability vary greatly.

4) Universal Design: The design of products, services, and environments that take into consideration degrees of human variation so as to be useable by people regardless of their age or ability is called universal design. Planning ahead to include people with a long-term functional limitation or loss is cost-effective. The proactive use of universal design is less expensive than applying it after something is already built or installed.

5) Disability Discrimination: The failure to apply universal design or failure to provide reasonable accommodation is disability discrimination. This is illegal in many situations. An offer to help - if someone asks, or if enough people ask, may seem generous, but may result in little or nothing being done. People in a disabling situation may not know what to ask for or how. They may avoid asking for reasonable accommodation due to the loss of self-esteem and embarrassment associated with being seen as not normal or as less than self-competent. Some people avoid requesting accommodation because they found that requesting help is too difficult, too futile, or more trouble than it is worth. Some people do not ask for accommodation because they do not want efforts made on their behalf, preferring that everything be done for the next generations. However it is practiced or permitted, disability discrimination leaves a legacy of a vain, short life to our children and to the churches who are not taught thereby how to serve Jesus (Matt 25:40), or how to honor their father and mother (Eph. 6:2-3).

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