Next high court nominee critical to ADA's survival
July 20, 2005
Fifteen years ago, on July 26, 1990, people with disabilities cheered when President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. We applauded when Bush called for "the shameful walls of exclusion" to come tumbling down. Our civil rights had finally been given legal protection and recognition.
Today, as we celebrate how the ADA has changed America, we know that our battle for equality is far from over.
President Bush's nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court should concern people who care about disability rights. If he is confirmed, Roberts is likely to cast the swing vote against the ADA and disability rights.
In 2002, in Williams v. Toyota, Roberts helped the Supreme Court narrow the scope of the ADA by arguing the case on behalf of the car manufacturer. Partly as a result of Roberts' arguments, the Supreme Court established a strict test for disability, making it much more difficult for people with disabilities such as diabetes, epilepsy, mental illness and workplace injuries to seek redress under the ADA.
Over the past 15 years, the American landscape has been transformed by the ADA, which protects people like me against discrimination in employment, public accommodations and government services.
Prior to the act, routine things that many Americans take for granted were difficult, if not impossible, for many people with disabilities. Often there would be no curb cuts on the streets, as well as no wheelchair ramps, accessible restrooms or Braille menus at restaurants.
Today, all of these things, including interpreters for deaf people, accessible polling places and schools that are inclusive to disabled students have becoming increasingly common in
Yet, implementing this civil rights law continues to be a struggle.
Many polling places remain inaccessible.
Too often, people with disabilities receive inadequate health care and education because of inaccessibility and discrimination.
Upholding the civil rights protections of the ADA has required the intervention of the Supreme Court. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that George Lane, a paraplegic, could seek legal redress against the state of Tennessee under the ADA after he was forced to crawl up the steps of a courthouse because the courthouse had no elevator.
This decision sends a powerful message to state governments that access to the courts and other services is an essential right. If you ignore this message, you're in violation of the law.
But this ruling came from a divided court. O'Connor sided in favor of Lane. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, speaking for those who dissented, wrote, "Congress utterly failed to identify any evidence that disabled persons were denied constitutionally protected access to judicial proceedings."
And based on their records, Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia have consistently ruled to weaken civil rights protections for people with disabilities.
To ensure that the protections of the ADA are upheld, the Senate should carefully scrutinize Roberts' record and views on disability rights as part of the confirmation process.
With 54 million Americans with disabilities, we must not let our civil rights collapse.
Kathi Wolfe is a writer in Falls Church, Va. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.