In the early 1970s, there were people with disabilities who couldn’t go to school or get basic educational services. In some states, they couldn’t vote or hold public office, get a drivers license, sign a contract, get married. Some states even had so-called “ugly laws” that banned from public places people whose physical appearance rendered them unpleasant to look at. That was legal. Twenty-five years ago today that widespread, systemic discrimination against people with disabilities was rendered illegal when President H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was breathtaking in scope but didn’t end discrimination. Executive Director of Disability Rights New Jersey Joe Young told NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams that the major significance that the ADA has, was that it give people with disabilities a voice.
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Executive Director of Disability Rights NJ: ADA Gave People with Disabilities a Voice
NJTV NEWS - 7-24-15
“Before then, particularly in New Jersey, there were laws, some laws protecting some people with disabilities in certain places but it wasn’t until the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed that it became part of the national conscience,” said Young.
Since the act was passed, Young said that the biggest change has been the physical accessibility to get to places. Prior to the act, many places did not have ramps or elevators to assist people with disabilities and Young says that places such as train stations now feature that accessibility.
“The physical access has been probably the most major step and the one that most people are actually aware of,” he said. “So people with disabilities are actually able to go places unassisted, where they weren’t able to go to before.”
Although things have changed to assist people with disabilities, Young said that there are gaps in enforcement still. He said that architects build buildings and design them in ways that they think are accessible for people and that sometimes they don’t end up that way, and sometimes a door or an elevator breaks down.
Attitudes began to change in the 1970s. Prior to the ADA, Young said that the federal government had passed the Rehabilitation Act that was a recognition that people with disabilities should at least get an opportunity to participate in federal programs. Young said after it took a while for the president and the administration to write regulations enforcing the Rehabilitation Act, a civil rights movement grew among people with disabilities that wanted those rights.
Young said that many challenges still exist in employment — the number of people with disabilities working now are not significantly greater than what it was in the 1990s.
“Many people with disabilities who want to work, they’re still not working. That still is the biggest area of improvement,” Young said.
On whether attitude or accessibility attributed to the challenge with jobs, Young said, “I think it’s a variety of things. There’s some disincentives for people with disabilities to work. The medical health care system sometimes encourages people to not to look for jobs. The wages are very low, but it is attitudes. It’s also attitudes that employers are just very reluctant to hire people with disabilities, sometimes overestimating the difficulties that they’re going to have.”