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Reporters have forgotten one of the greatest civil rights advances in the past 30 years

Reporters have forgotten one of the greatest civil rights advances in the past 30 years

Picture of William Heisel
A mother comforts her son during the first annual Disability Pride Parade in 2015 in New York City.
(Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

The Americans with Disabilities Act turns 30 in 2020. 

And yet reporters everywhere have forgotten one of the greatest civil rights advances in American history. Signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in July 1990, the ADA attempted to break down the barriers preventing millions of people from living healthy, productive lives by requiring basic steps to be taken to accommodate a range of health challenges, including impairments of sight, sound and mobility. 

It has led to many, many successes over the years. It has brought people into the workforce who were shut out, and enabled the education of kids who were sidelined before. And it has made day-to-day activities like going to the grocery store a pleasant routine instead of a test of one's courage. 

In September 1988, the U.S. House and Senate held the first joint hearing on the ADA. Many of the challenges presented that day remain unaddressed. If you look around your coverage area, you will find one instance after another where the ADA has not lived up to its promise. There are stories about school districts failing kids in need. Stories about local governments making short-term spending decisions that have long-term consequences for their constituents. And stories about businesses turning their backs on people who have health challenges.

You should investigate the unequal implementation of the ADA because it’s a fundamental public service. But if that’s not motivating enough, do it because it’s the kind of story that journalism award committees love. It has a strong human element and the potential to effect real change.

The inadequate implementation of the ADA is an issue that has been a focus of mine since my very first internship at the tiny Mexico Ledger in Missouri. I wrote a series of stories there that were my first investigative pieces and I remain as proud of them today as any work I have done since. My stories were prompted by a girl with a physical impairment who was told by the school that she could not serve on the student body council. (Crazy, right?) I dug into how local school districts all over my corner of Missouri were falling short of providing equal opportunities for their kids. 

Those same stories could be written today. And they should. 

The issue has huge health implications for everyone because we all develop disabilities over time. So, I urge you to do three things between now and the start of the ADA anniversary year in 2020.

1) First, do a little self-assessment. Are you someone who does now or will in the future benefit from the equal implementation of the ADA. I often give talks about health trends, and I will frequently start by saying, “We all are walking around with some sort of disability.” I point to my glasses. “I have had vision impairment since my early 30s, and possibly undiagnosed prior to that.” I point to my ears. “I’ve been to too many concerts without ear protection over the years and have hearing loss.” And I point to my head. “I’m sure if you asked my wife and kids, they would tell you that I have a hard time remembering where I put my office key card on any given day. So, mental health challenges, too.” 

You have your own list. Try to think about how your own life may have benefited from some of the ripple effects of the ADA. I’ll give you one simple example. Ever enlarged the type on your smartphone? That type of accommodation for vision impairments flows directly from the advances that have been made through the ADA. Now think about all the ways that workplaces, schools, businesses, and other settings do little or nothing to accommodate people with vision impairments, mobility impairments, hearing impairments, and so on.

2) Second, talk with people with different health challenges to understand the world through their experience. I was working at a coffee shop the other day and struck up a conversation with a man sitting next to me. As it turns out, he has a hearing impairment and works for a company that is focused on technologies that aid hearing. That 15-minute conversation opened up a whole world if ideas for me about all the subtle things we take for granted if we have little to no hearing loss. A journalist friend of mine told me recently about a high school student she knew who needed to use a wheelchair. He was unable to take a required course because it was held in a part of the school that was inaccessible by wheelchair. He also was denied access to the school’s honors program for the same reason. There are stories like this all over the country. You need to find them.

3) Third, go back to the intent of the ADA and contrast the promise of yesterday with the reality of today. I would recommend a few key pieces of reading. The first is the testimony of Sandra Swift Parrino during the 1981 confirmation hearings of Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. Parrino writes descriptively and movingly of the world in which her disabled son was then a teenager.

Senators, children who are disabled and denied access to services are second class citizens in the country of their birth. For how long will we continue to abuse them? Barriers to human potential are destructive and humiliating, whether they are architectural or attitudinal. My son is part of a large and forgotten minority. 

Parrino was the chair of what was then known as the National Council on the Handicapped, a council created by the U.S. government to research issues related to disabilities and make recommendations to Congress and the president. In 1986, the council drafted the initial Americans with Disabilities Act legislation. The council also produced a landmark white paper that it presented to Congress and then President Ronald Reagan in January 1988 titled “On the Threshold of Independence.” In that paper, the council cites surveys and studies that capture the problems of the day, problems that have been mitigated but remain serious nonetheless today.

Nearly two-thirds of all disabled Americans never went to a movie in the past year. In the full adult population, only 22% said that they had not gone to a movie in the past year.

Three-fourths of all disabled persons did not see live theater or a live music performance in the past year. Among all adults, about 4 out of 10 had not done so.

Two-thirds of all disabled persons never went to a sports event in the past year, compared to 50% of all adults.

Disabled people are three times more likely than are non-disabled people to never eat in restaurants. Only 34% of disabled people eat at a restaurant once a week or more, compared to a 58% majority of non-disabled people.

Take what you know about your own experience, what you hear from people with significant health challenges, and what you have researched about the intent and implementation of the ADA and find a focus area. It could be school districts. It could be public spaces. It could be restaurants. It could be health care facilities. There are so many directions you could go. 

To me, it has the makings of a great investigative series that could start in January and run once a month for seven months until the anniversary in July. If you have ideas for stories or if you have a story that you want to share, find me on Twitter @wheisel.


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Here's some other advice for reporters, from a disabled person: Stop using euphemisms like "challenges," "impairments," and "special needs" and start using "disabilities (and "disabled"). This is especially true with articles specifically about the Americans With Disabilities Act.

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