Advocates celebrate importance of national disability legislation



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Dr. Chris Smit loves the ADA.

The Calvin College communications professor says, “The Ameri-cans with Disabilities Act offered access not only to buildings, jobs, and transportation, but also to culture.”

Dr. Smit, who is wheelchair-bound and has written widely (and co-edited a book) on media portrayal of people with disabilities, continued, “It allowed people like myself to take an active role in the community, in the culture of Grand Rapids, or wherever. It’s not like I had to go to Calvin College and say, ‘Remember that ADA?’ The assumption is already there.”

Dr. Smit serves on the board of Disability Advocates of Kent County (DAKC), which threw a party for the 23rd anniversary of the ADA on Tuesday at Rosa Parks Circle.

The mission of DAKC, which has been around since 1981, states, “We advocate and facilitate action by persons with disabilities and the community to achieve equal access for all.” It started as the Grand Rapids Center for Independent Living, changing its name in 2002. Dave Bulkowski, also now a county commissioner, has been Executive Director for over 17 years.

DAKC exists to  foster people with disabilities living independently, their worth and contributions respected, and to lift up their voices in all aspects of advocacy for the capacity to live full and dignified lives. The full-service agency does everything from offering assistive technology to supporting employment searches to finding housing, with a focus on people with disabilities knowing their rights.

The July 23 observation — the real “birthday” of the ADA is July 26 — featured live music from  Andy Holtgrieve of Domestic Problems, Hawks and Owls, and Tommy and the Time Out band, as well as information about DAKC services, a chance to socialize, and a number of hula hoops.

The celebration was all about the ADA of 1990, the first comprehensive legislative bill to address the rights of people with disabilities. The ADA prohibits discrimination, but went further by mandating that covered entities must make reasonable accommodations to people’s physical or mental limitations. When President George H.W. Bush signed the Act into law, he declared, “Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa authored and sponsored the ADA. He gave part of his speech introducing it in sign language so his deaf brother could understand.

Between its passage and 2008, several important court cases interpreted the ADA, particularly Sutton v. United Airlines, 527 U.S. 471 (1999) and Toyota Motor Mfg., Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002).

To address what Congress felt were improper limitations these cases imposed, the houses passed the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. In particular, these amendments counteract rulings that an individual who is able to mitigate his or her disability, for example a legally blind person whose vision is greatly improved by wearing contact lenses, may be ineligible to make claims under ADA.

It also clarified the original bill’s definition of disability, “...a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity,” by listing, though not all-inclusively, what those activities are.

Commented Dr. Smit, “There are still a lot of disability issues not met by the ADA. For example, attended care versus nursing-home care. The government has to continue to commit to getting people in safe and healthy situations rather than in institutions.”

Bulkowski says that the major advocacy concern of DAKC right now is Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Governor Snyder supports that expansion, and the House passed a bill authorizing it, but the Senate has failed to act.

DAKC joins with Disability Network/Michigan (DNM) in advocacy efforts on this issue. DNM argues that, considering that 65% of current recipients are disabled, blind, or aged, while only 35% are of low income, expanding Medicaid will reduce the amount of eventual disabled by addressing and preventing chronic health conditions now. The DNM position paper also states, “[H]abilitative and rehabilitative services reduce utilization of high cost inpatient and institutional care, maximizing independence and productivity.”

A DAKC staffer is also working to make the case to the Michigan Senate that expansion would help the 50,000 uninsured home-care workers who provide direct care for the elderly and disabled, which also has the potential to reduce long-term Medicaid costs.

In addition, DAKC joins those at the federal level advocating for changes to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which works alongside ADA in vocational rehabilitation and Independent Living (IL) issues. On Wednesday, 23 years after sponsoring the ADA, Sen. Harkin along with Sen. Lamar Alexander introduced a reauthorization bill that would call for formation of the Independent Living Administration, and moving IL from the Dept. of Education to the Dept.of Health and Human Services, Administration on Community Living.  Advocates support this because it will elevate the status of IL in U.S. government and leave key financial decisions to IL Center administrators.