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Celebrating ADA — and looking ahead to changes

This month marks the 18th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 —  one of the most important pieces of disability legislation ever — so Minnesotans celebrated July 25 with a gathering in St. Paul.

Speaking there was Peter Berg, from Chicago; he’s an expert on the complicated provisions of the act, which assures fairness in employment, access, transportation and other life activities — in much the same way the Civil Rights laws of the 1960s did for discrimination based on race, sex and religion.

Berg, the Project Coordinator of Technical Assistance and Employer Outreach at the DBTAC Great Lakes ADA Center, told how some changes are in the works in Congress, as the House has passed an ADA Amendments Act and the Senate this fall will look at  proposed changes, too.

It appears likely, according to Berg and others, that the House version, which was negotiated with businesses and the disability community, will eventually prevail.

The changes attempt to clarify the disabilities law after some high court decisions made it difficult for employees to sue under the act if there are mitigating measures available to them. For instance, if assistive technology or medication helps a person overcome  symptoms of a disability, their employment discrimination law suit could be thrown out of court, he said.

A big hurdle
The current definition of a disability under the law is: a physical or mental disability that substantially limits a major life activity. Life activities include, among other things: caring for oneself, completing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, sleeping, standing, speaking, concentrating and working.

A big hurdle has always been interpreting the phrase: “substantially limits.” In the first attempt at change, the ADA Restoration Act of 2007, proposed legislation would have eliminated that phrase and told the courts that mitigating measures should not be considered when determining eligibility, Berg said.

That didn’t fly with business and human resources interests, so a new attempt at compromise — the ADA Amendments Act — was debated and passed in the House.  In it, the “substantially limiting” language is back, and so is the wording about not considering mitigating measures. While not perfect, Berg said, it’s heading in the right direction for the disabled.

On a separate track, the Department of Justice also is considering some other rule changes, Berg said. Some involve whether reasonable accommodation should include, in some places, golf carts, Segue scooters or other motorized mobility aids.

Another point of concern in the rules, he said, is the inclusion of “thinking and concentrating” in the list of major life activities covered under the law. Some colleges and universities are very concerned, he said, that they’ll have to make special accommodations and hire tutors and special teachers for students who have concentration problems.

And there is a proposed change that would change the kinds of animals that are allowed as service animals for the disabled in certain areas and on public transportation: monkeys, lizards, horses and wild animals would not be considered as service animals.

ADA’s sweeping scope
Margo Imdieke Cross, the accessibility specialist at the Minnesota State Council on Disability, said the celebration of the ADA Act is important because of the legislation’s sweeping scope in improving life for so many Americans.

“It provides protection in employment and access, and opens up the market place,” she said. “It recognizes that people with disabilities are consumers. The true power of any protected class is the power of the market place .”

Looking forward, Imdieke Cross said changes and improvements in the law will help people with disabilities continue to advance.

“When everyone can get an adequate education and secure good-paying jobs, the big picture for everyone will improve,” she said.

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