Wednesday, July 26, 2017

ADA: Hope, leverage and opportunity

Today we celebrate the Americans with Disabilities Act, while remaining ever vigilant

Dear Arc Community:

It has been 27 years since the landmark enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibiting discrimination toward people with disabilities.  While it has not been a perfect journey, we pause to celebrate that the ADA offers us continued hope, leverage, and opportunity to ensure equity for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in our public schools, places of employment, in public accommodations, government services, and transportation. 

The ADA opened the door for the Supreme Court's decision in Olmstead v. L.C., a ruling that requires states to eliminate unnecessary segregation of people with disabilities and provide supports in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs. 

“Confinement in an institution severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals, including family relations, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement, and cultural enrichment."   U.S. Supreme Court, Olmstead v. L.C., 1999

During his time in office, President Obama issued a proclamation launching the "Year of Community Living," and directed a redoubling of enforcement efforts aimed at ending discrimination based on disability.  Since that time, the federal government has responded by working with state and local government officials, the Department of Health and Human Services, and disability rights groups and attorneys around the country to enforce the creation of an effective, nationwide system that implements the mandate for integration. 

Unfortunately, over the past several months, this promise of community integration has been deeply challenged.  Congress has put forward legislation that demonstrates a shocking lack of understanding about what it takes to ensure people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have the supports they need to live, work and engage in their communities, to experience self-determination and choice, and not lead lives of isolation and institutional dependence. 

Medicaid services have been designed as the foundation for services that support community integration for people with disabilities.  These services are threatened by the current discussion in the Senate to deeply cut the Medicaid program and significantly decrease access to home- and community-based services. 

Eighteen years after Olmstead and 27 years after passage of the ADA, we must continue to fight for the civil rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities -- because for too many people with disabilities, we continue to see a real gap between what the law guarantees and what people experience.  We must take effort to preserve the promise that the Medicaid system offers for community-based services, and we must be thoughtful about what we can do in our local communities about transportation, education, employment and criminal justice issues.

We continue to see challenges with public transportation as people with disabilities face unlawful barriers to getting around their communities. The most recent audit of the King County's paratransit system, Metro Access, reveals glaring design flaws that continue to isolate people with disabilities, jeopardizing access to care, preventing access to gainful employment, causing safety issues, and reducing opportunities to meaningfully engage in healthy lifestyles and activities.  We have asked for leadership from the King County Council to ensure this system is redesigned and listens to what its customers need.   We hope you will share your story if you have one. 

We see this gap in employment, as 450,000 people with disabilities nationwide still spend their time in segregated sheltered workshops or day programs, with some paid just pennies per hour.  We have a call to action to businesses in the Puget Sound region to make the Pacific Northwest a welcoming place for people with social, behavioral and intellectual differences and ask for their leadership in affecting significant social change through employment of people with disabilities and training their employees to be good stewards to their customers with disabilities. 

We see this gap in education, as public schools deny children with disabilities the opportunities they deserve to learn and thrive alongside their nondisabled peers.  When students with disabilities are disciplined for behavior related to their disabilities, isolated in separate classrooms and are not provided opportunities to learn skills that successfully connect them to peer and school life, they don’t get the opportunity to develop needed skills, or get the resources and experiences they need to contribute, learn and reach their potential in school, in the workforce and in life.  As importantly, we deny a new generation of students the opportunity to develop relationships with and see people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as part of their community and daily life. 

And finally, we see this gap in our justice system, as too many people suffer from policies that criminalize their disabilities.  Fear and mistrust continues to exist between many people with disabilities and their families and the officers who serve and protect them.  We must work together to address the root problems that face both people with disabilities and law enforcement agencies.  Here in the city of Seattle, as part of a consent decree, the city and police department have created an advisory committee specifically focused on crisis intervention -- but there is still no specific training required to address the needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  Crisis intervention means recognizing when conditions such as intellectual or developmental disability may impact one’s behavior.  It means recognizing that a person may not understand commands.  It means dispatching a specialized Crisis Intervention Team or CIT-trained officers to respond to crisis-related calls.  And it means responding with care and communication to defuse tensions rather than resorting to unnecessary force.

As a society, we share a collective responsibility to reverse these trends by expanding and investing in community-based care and taking action.

It is important that we recognize the difference between equity and equality as we eliminate barriers for people with disabilities to live, learn, work and play in the community.  Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. Equality is treating everyone the same. Equality aims to promote fairness, but it can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same help.  Disability is diverse and it requires us to be person-centered and look at principals of universal design to thoughtfully include people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in our communities and services. 

To combat stigmas, to empower communities and to bring our country closer to its ideals, we must start in a place where all people are treated with dignity and worth; we must design our communities, businesses, neighborhoods and governments as places where all people get a fair chance -- including people with disabilities.

So with this in mind, we say thanks to the ADA and happy anniversary.


Stacy Gillett
Executive Director
The Arc of King County