ADA: A Personal View

Disabilities come in many forms. The most obvious are visible, physical differences that cause people to move or speak differently from others around them. Hearing or visual impairments may cause people to perceive things differently. Not until we personally experience such challenges can we fully appreciate the frustrations and hardships they cause. Given an arbitrary standard of what is "normal," many of us could be classified as "abnormal," but it is only when such differences cause hardship or discrimination that the law steps in. It isn't always necessary to resort to legislation to reduce the unfairness, however. Much of the time an open mind is the greatest tool in helping others fit into a "normal" workplace.

When President George Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law in 1990, its intent was to prevent hiring discrimination against those with physical or emotional disabilities that would make positions more difficult for them than for people without those disabilities. Title I prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies and labor unions from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training and other aspects of employment. Title II addresses the operations of state and local governments. Finally, Title III applies to public accommodations, commercial facilities and private entities offering certain examinations and courses.


Compassion and Understanding Helpful
ADA has been phased in to regulate small businesses, but a little compassion and understanding for those who are "differently abled" can improve life for everyone.

This summer, a friend and I were checking out college campus facilities as a possible site for a martial arts training camp for women. The campus we inspected, in the rolling hills of West Virginia, was older than many that have hosted the camp over the years, and for the first time I became aware of many small details that could present major obstacles to some camp participants.

My partner and I looked at hills and construction areas carefully. We also noticed how many buildings were accessed by a single stair step, enough to bar wheel chairs. The pool was in a building accessed by a 12-step stairway up to the lobby, then down 12 steps to the pool, but no outdoor entrance. We looked at the roads crossing the campus to see whether they provided signals and enough sight distance for slower walkers to cross without danger.

I studied the campus lighting carefully. I don't consider myself disabled, but I am challenged by night-blindness as a result of retinitis pigmentosa. Actually, I didn't know anyone could see in the dark until I was 16 and walking with a group of friends through our neighborhood after sunset. A burned out streetlight caused a dark area to hide a car parked by the side of the road, which I promptly walked into. When my friends finally realized I hadn't done it to be funny, they were amazed, and so was I—it was a mutual awakening to differences in perception. The amazement continued through college, when I couldn't see most of the stars in my astronomy class and had to do alternative lab projects such as spectral analysis to determine star magnitude (not a fair exchange!). Later, while camping in the Rockies, I saw more stars than ever before in my life, but I could count all seven of them. Meanwhile, my companions were marveling over the beauties of the Milky Way.

Lighting is important for safety for everyone, but it is crucial for those who see differently to be able to decipher what they are seeing. In the open, this means well-lit parking lots and door entrances. In the workplace, this may mean alternative room lighting or additional desk lighting. There is a solution, and the problem merely becomes a challenge. It can also mean better working and living conditions for everyone—not just the person instigating the change.

The point of the ADA is to allow differently abled people to function in society without suffering from discrimination or false barriers. Some barriers are physical and can be altered by changing the widths of doorways and adding ramps to the entrances of buildings. Others are mental, but they are only barriers in the mind of the would-be employer and not in the would-be employee. Preconceptions about what someone who is "different" from ourselves can or can't do may be the biggest obstacle facing that person. Once that mindset is changed to a problem-solving outlook, seeing what is possible through a few modifications rather than seeing what is believed to be too difficult to tackle, a happy outcome may be in store for both parties.

Perceptions Can Be Biggest Obstacle
Many of us are marginally aware of changes in construction since the passage of ADA. Few of us, however, have had to change the way we do business to accommodate people who move or perceive differently from the way we do, and only "reasonable accommodations" that would do not cause "undue hardship" to the employer are required. Under no circumstances is discrimination based on a disability permitted if the person is qualified for a position. Employers can ask job applicants about their ability to perform a job, but cannot ask whether they have a disability or subject them to tests that would screen out people with disabilities. By July 26, 1992, all employers with 25 or more employees were required to comply with ADA, and by July 26, 1994, employers with 15 to 24 employees were included. Perhaps the most important component in compliance is keeping an open mind. Recognize that the person in front of you has learned to cope in ways you could never imagine and can likely offer far more than you initially suspect.


Wendy Lathrop is an instructor at Penn State University at Wilkes-Barre, the ACSM representative to FEMA's Technical Mapping Advisory Council and a Contributing Editor for the magazine.

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