When is National Disability Independence Day?
July 26 is National Disability Independence Day, a day recognized by the federal government to celebrate the 1990 signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The landmark bill prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and guarantees their civil rights to access education, transport, employment and other services. Before the ADA, people with disabilities were not legally entitled to reasonable accommodation, including in universities and colleges.
Inclusive Design and Engineering Center
Associate Professor Cathy Bodine, executive director of the Inclusive Design and Engineering Center at CU Denver, entered the field of adaptive technology after working with people with cognitive disabilities, including non-speaking people. âThere were so many assumptions and prejudices surrounding their abilities,â she said. âWhen I used technology to give a voice to people with cognitive disabilities who couldn’t speak, I was able to demonstrate that they could engage and participate in the world. “
Becky breaux, doctoral student in Department of Health and Behavioral Sciences and a senior research instructor at the Center for Inclusive Design and Engineering, shared a similar story. Breaux started his career as an occupational therapist. âWhen I provided assistive technology, I felt it made a huge difference to my patients,â she said. “I realized the power that technology can have for an individual in helping them to be more independent, secure, at ease, no matter what is important to them.”
Many University of Denver students may be too young to remember what life was like for people with disabilities before the enactment of the ADA. Daily life in the pre-ADA era was a struggle. Imagine being in a wheelchair and trying to enter a building without a ramp. Or be legally blind and not have access to a braille menu.
Jennifer maxwell, digital accessibility coordinator at Community College of Denver, has two disabilities. âI use a wheelchair and I am legally blind. I use a lot of the technology that I teach, âshe said. She was lucky: she entered college after the enactment of the ADA, which made it a much easier experience for her.
She didn’t realize how difficult life for people with disabilities had been before the ADA, until she did some research. âFrom a textbook perspective, they make it look like the ADA was enacted overnight,â she said. âHistory ignores the fact that people really had to work to put these laws in place. Learning more about disability activism put the importance of ADA into perspective. “It was really telling – I had no idea what people went through in the ’70s and’ 80s.”
Bodine pointed out that local disability activists have helped shape public policy. âDenver got the first bus stop,â she said. âPeople with reduced mobility got out of their wheelchairs and asked for accessible buses. This 1978 Denver protest, in which people with disabilities blocked off traffic on Broadway and Colfax by lying in the streets, was the first protest related to public transportation rights. âAs with any civil rights issue, there was a need to right an injustice,â Bodine added.
Higher education for disabled students
Research shows that following ADA, more students with disabilities have enrolled in college. Although these students can benefit from the law, they still face challenges that people without disabilities do not face. âI speak from experience,â said Maxwell. âThe number one challenge is that many students coming out of the K12 system are routed in a very protective and regulated manner, with parents and special education professionals who have always stood up for their order. In college, on the other hand, they have to defend themselves.
Maxwell pointed out that the majority of students with disabilities on the Auraria campus have invisible disabilities – “mental health challenges, PTSD, autism, things you can’t see from the outside.” After being identified as disabled in school, many students with hidden disabilities want to forget about the stigma they faced as children. âThey think they can do it all on their own and then they end up struggling in the first and second semesters because they don’t get the support they need,â Maxwell explained.
Graduate student Gabriel Gates, who is preparing his EdD in the School of Education and Human Development, said that while the ADA grants people with disabilities like him their civil rights, it is not always easy for them: âIn my lived experiences the fight for justice has been a heavy fight with endless rounds , and the antagonists tried to call the outcome of the fight before it was over.
Letter against spirit of the law
Breaux believes that National Disability Independence Day should recognize the rights of people with disabilities. “ADA is extremely important,” she said, “but there is still work to be done.” Graduate student Gates agrees. âI am grateful for all that the ADA has done to ensure equity, social justice and, most importantly, independence for people with disabilities,â he said. “I appreciate and celebrate all of the accomplishments that the ADA has helped us achieve since its crucial inception in July 1990.”
Maxwell agrees. âThere’s the letter of the law and then there’s the spirit – how good things can be,â she said. âMost of the time, construction is done at the bare minimum of what is required by law. “
The same goes for technology. âFor a lot of software, there are compliance testing tools that allow you to see if documents are accessible to people with disabilities,â Maxwell said. âThey are looking for very rigid established standards; they don’t really capture the spirit of full access and inclusion that we really seek. Bodine made a similar point: âPeople don’t design with full accessibility in mind, whether it’s a building, a widget, a wheelchair or a street corner.
Bodine conducted a study at the Center for Inclusive Design and Engineering in collaboration with Utah State University. Using focus groups, the researchers looked at everyday accessibility issues for people in wheelchairs. âIt was amazing how many people told us their power wheelchair battery was depleted in an inconvenient place,â she said. âSome of them were taken to jail or to hospital. The assumption was that you are not moving so you must be sick.
Maxwell, Bodine and Breaux all hope colleges, businesses and governments will go beyond minimum housing and invest in universal design. âI am a big believer in universal design,â said Maxwell. âIt is about multiple modes of engagement, expressionâ¦ which explain the variety of learning styles. She believes universal design benefits everyone, not just people with disabilities. Inclusive teaching, combined with assistive technology, can equally benefit a student learning English (ELL) while benefiting a visually impaired student; it’s a win-win.
At the Center for Inclusive Design & Engineering, Bodine and Breaux see companies developing technologies to support universal design. âWhat’s going on with Apple, for example,â Breaux said. âNo one is forcing them to make iPhones more accessible; they do it because people with disabilities are a huge market.
I asked if the ADA would need to expand its scope to include cellular and digital technologies. âTechnology is moving so fast and federal regulatory processes are moving so slowly,â Bodine said. In an increasingly computerized world, Bodine believes that well-designed housing will come as a response to market needs. According to U.S. Census Population Projections, by 2034, people over 65 will outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history. âThe older generation as a market will do more to drive change. By 2050, how many of us will be able to get in a car and drive? We’re going to need autonomous vehicles, âshe said.
The ADA benefits people with and without disabilities. Bodine spoke of the handicaps brought about by the situation: âIf you go to a place where the sound levels are so high that you can’t sleep and you don’t sleep for a few nights, then your cognition drops. Even a loud bar can cause situation-induced disability. âTake the closed captioning,â Bodine said. “It wasn’t designed to be used in a bar, but it turns out that when you’re in a bar you can’t hear the game.”
In addition, people without disabilities can become people with disabilities. âA 20-year-old brain takes up the entire skull,â said Bodine. âYour brain literally shrinks with age. Thinking and remembering can take a long time. We are all on a continuum of different functional levels at some point, which is why ADA is so critical.
Gates explained that people with disabilities are often overlooked in discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion. âPeople with disabilities have historically been the last to enjoy equal rights in societies around the world. However, we are the largest minority group and we are stronger together. ”
People with disabilities are an under-represented and underserved community, said Maxwell. âIt’s good that over the last few years, disabilities are starting to take a bigger place in the conversation in the world of diversity, equity and inclusion,â she said. âThere is still a lot of work to be done. Just because something exists as a law doesn’t mean discrimination is gone, it’s about changing hearts and minds.