The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed 32 years ago Tuesday, was a powerful milestone in the journey toward equal rights for people with disabilities.
But advocates for the community on Long Island agree the job is not nearly complete.
"Access and opportunity have certainly increased over the last three decades-plus, yet, there looms still this notion that ensuring accessibility and equity is somehow optional or just a nice thing to do," said Therese Brzezinski, director of planning and public policy for the Long Island Center for Independent Living in Levittown.
That means some everyday basics remain neglected all these years later, she said. Among those: access to subway stations in New York City, where MTA figures show only 27% are accessible for people with disabilities.
"Despite many advances, the day-to-day for disabled people still means tough commutes to work or school and missed opportunities due to inaccessible train stations and taxis," Brzezinski said. "And health care postponed because of inaccessible diagnostic equipment and the absence of qualified sign language interpreters. We’ve come a long way, but not far enough and not fast enough."
Emily Ladau of West Babylon, an author, activist and podcast host, pointed out that any piece of legislation can go only so far.
"We can create policies, but we can’t legislate attitude shifts," said Ladau, who has Larsen Syndrome, an orthopedic disability that causes dislocated joints and bone abnormalities. "Moving toward an unquestioned understanding that people with disabilities are worthy of inclusion and accessibility will take continued advocacy, action and allyship."
The landmark legislation, signed by former President George H.W. Bush, prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability; mandates equal access to health care, social services and transportation; and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities.
Chris Rosa, president and chief executive of the Viscardi Center in Albertson, which provides programs and services for people with disabilities, said the legislation's impact has been widespread.
Since its passage, he said, unemployment among job-seeking adults with disabilities has been cut in half, while students with disabilities now graduate high school and attend college at rates comparable to youth who do not have disabilities.
"The core principle of 'reasonable accommodation' says that if you remove barriers, people with disabilities have an equal opportunity to succeed or fail purely on their merits alone," Rosa said Tuesday at the Nassau County Courthouse in Mineola, during a ceremony commemorating the law's anniversary, alongside lawmakers, members of the judiciary, advocates and Viscardi students.
The ADA is deeply personal to Nassau District Attorney Anne Donnelly, whose son, Jack, was born at 25 1/2 weeks, weighed less than two pounds and was nonverbal until age 5.
But due in large part to the promise of equal opportunity afforded by the ADA to millions of Americans with disabilities, Jack, 27, who is on the autism spectrum, is thriving and could soon transition into a job training program, Donnelly said.
"He is now a developmentally disabled adult and is functioning and enjoying life because of the opportunities that the Americans with Disabilities Act afforded to him," Donnelly said. "It means a lot to me as a mom."
Kenneth Kunken, deputy bureau chief of the Nassau County Trial Bureau, said the ADA changed his life. Kunken, who was paralyzed from the neck down while playing football at Cornell University, said that when he started at the district attorney's office nearly four decades ago, his wheelchair could not get through the front door of the courthouse.
"Forty years later, every courtroom in New York State and America are accessible," he said.
James Weisman, a disability rights attorney and chief executive of the nonprofit United Spinal Association, successfully sued New York City to provide bus, subway and rail access for people with disabilities and was a key negotiator promoting passage of the ADA in Congress, which he calls "the height of my career."
Weisman, who worked at Viscardi as a youth, said one of the greatest achievements of the ADA is the "creation of collective consciousness of needs and rights. The ADA changed American jurisprudence."
With Laura Figueroa Hernandez