Protecting the Rights and Dignity of Americans with Disabilities

Photo by Joey Yu on Unsplash

57 million Americans live with a disability, yet they continue to struggle for adequate rights and funding to ensure accessibility in all aspects of life. Our laws surrounding disability are troublingly outdated and must be brought into the 21st century. Millions of Americans are denied access to the care they deserve and the services they need, while landmark disability rights laws are being attacked and rolled back.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed over a quarter of a century ago, yet Americans with disabilities still face many barriers to living a life that is fully integrated with the rest of the population. Yet there have been recent efforts to make the ADA more difficult to enforce, and put the burden of enforcement on people with disabilities. Instead, our laws must be updated and strengthened to ensure that individuals with disabilities have the same access to every part of life as their fellow Americans and that their civil rights are fully protected. These policy protections must be mandated at the federal level, so Americans with disabilities have their rights protected no matter where they reside.

This administration’s support for ADA rollback poses an enormous threat threat to the rights of Americans with disabilities.Dismantling the Affordable Care Act, which protects many people from discrimination in the insurance market, would rob many people with disabilities of health care they fought hard to earn. We must also resume funding for Medicaid programs like Money Follows the Person, which helped tens of thousands of seniors and people with disabilities leave nursing homes or institutions and return to their communities. Passing bills like the EMPOWER Act will return full funding to these programs and preserve the agency of people with disabilities.

The ADA was a significant legislative achievement and has been one of America’s most successful policy exports, with more than 30 countries adopting legislation modeled on the ADA. There is still much work to do, however, and, to continue leading on this issue internationally, we should take decisive action such as ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Learning disabilities such as ADHD and dyslexia affect one in five Americans, and we need stronger laws to protect their ability to pursue a high-quality education. Unfortunately, nearly three decades after the passage of the landmark Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), more than 18 percent of students with learning disabilities drop out, compared to just 6.5 percent of their peers. Local schools must accommodate students regardless of differences in ability to ensure that young students can thrive with their peer groups.

We must reauthorize IDEA with amendments, such as a new focus on the principles of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and services for students under the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. The UDL is a framework intended to optimize teaching based on the latest research in the learning sciences, such as cognitive neuroscience, while the Carl D. Perkins Act aims to improve the quality of technical education offered in America’s schools. Incorporated into a reauthorized IDEA, these measures will serve as the foundation of independent living, economic self-sufficiency, and equal opportunity.

The right of disabled people to participate in the political process must also be fiercely defended. Due to the nationwide movement towards paper ballots in light of security concerns and inadequately maintained accessible voting machines, Americans with certain disabilities end up being treated as second-class citizens when they go to vote. A survey on Election Day in 2016 revealed that two-thirds of polling stations presented at least one impediment to voters with disabilities. Too often, individuals with disabilities show up to their polling places only to find they are unable to even enter the building due to inadequate accommodations.

This is utterly unacceptable. All polling places must be ADA compliant, physically accessible, and have usable, accessible voting technology. Over the last decade, Colorado has become a model for the rest of the nation in terms of making sure every American can vote. Through county-by-county audits of the accessibility of polling places, the state has enforced standards that directly allowed for a 69% voter participation rate among Coloradans with disabilities on Election Day in 2016 compared to 56% participation nationwide.

With strong legislative action, we can defend the rights of Americans with disabilities, and expand them to include greater agency in their own lives, better education options, and improved access to the political process. 57 million Americans are counting on our government to treat them with the dignity, respect, and inclusiveness that they deserve.