Today, July 26, I celebrate the 20th anniversary of the signing of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). I only wish it fully lived up to its promise.
For people with disabilities who live in urban areas like me, the ADA has been a huge help.
I live in Chicago, and on the day the ADA was signed, there was not one accessible public transit bus on the streets here. Today, every bus in Chicago is accessible.
Thanks to the mandates of the ADA, nearly all public transportation vehicles and facilities in urban areas are now wheelchair accessible. But in rural areas, where public transit options of any kind are scarce, people with disabilities are still very isolated.
And all those with disabilities who live against their will in institutions and nursing homes are also as isolated as ever.
In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court underscored the power of the ADA when it ruled, in the case of Olmstead v. L.C. and E.W., that states violate the rights of the disabled by not offering community-support alternatives to institutionalization. Activists have used this precedent to pressure state governments to create more community-based support services. But many states have mightily resisted change.
And the federal government has a terrible double standard. Its Medicaid rules require states to pay the costs of keeping people with disabilities in nursing homes. But states are not required to pay for community-based supports.
In today’s fiscal crisis, governors and legislatures in many states, such as California, New York and Illinois, are attempting to balance budgets by cutting programs that provide people with disabilities with the assistance they need to remain in their homes and communities.
Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Justice has gotten aggressive recently in initiating and supporting lawsuits against state governments that are not complying with the Olmstead ruling. The Obama administration deserves credit for taking this meaningful action. But the most meaningful action the federal government could take is ending the institutional bias in Medicaid funding.
The effectiveness of the ADA will be judged on future anniversaries by how well it has brought freedom to the lives of disabled people who have the greatest needs and the least resources.
They are the ones who so far have been left behind.
Mike Ervin is a Chicago-based writer and a disability-rights activist with ADAPT (www.adapt.org). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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