Impact Feature Issue on the ADA and People with Intellectual Developmental, and Other Disabilities

Partners in Implementing the ADA:
Reflections from Three Iowa Policymakers


Bob Bacon is Director of the Iowa University Center for Excellence on Disabilities, University of Iowa, Iowa City. He may be reached at robert-bacon@uiowa.edu or 319/356-1335.

Any article marking the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would be incomplete without a contribution from the ADA’s chief architect, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin. In the opinion piece below, Senator Harkin commemorates the ADA as an “Emancipation Proclamation” for people with disabilities, while highlighting additional steps that need to be taken to realize its promise. Those additional steps involve commitment and action at the state and local levels to bring Congressional intent to the street level. Therefore, this article also includes opinion pieces by an Iowa state legislator, Representative Dave Heaton, and a member of the Regional Advisory Committee for Mental Health and Disability Services of East Central Iowa, Terry Cunningham. These three pieces together underscore how implementation of the ADA requires a partnership at the federal, state, and local levels. Equally important, it is clear that implementation requires increased expectations on the part of all Americans that individuals with disabilities are fully included. (Bob Bacon)

The Honorable Tom Harkin, United States Senator, Iowa

Our nation will soon mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, one of the landmark civil rights laws of the 20th century. In addition to being an Emancipation Proclamation for people with disabilities, the ADA has the very down-to-earth purpose of ensuring that people with disabilities can go places and do things that other Americans take for granted.

Over the past quarter-century, the ADA has provided opportunity and access for more than 56 million Americans with disabilities. Prior to passage of this landmark civil rights legislation, these Americans routinely faced prejudice, exclusion, and insurmountable physical barriers in their everyday lives. And while there is still more work to do, we can now say that across the country, Americans with disabilities have an opportunity to participate more fully in our national life through the removal of barriers in employment, transportation, public services, telecommunications, and public accommodations.

As we look forward, we must build on the progress we have made to make all of American life accessible for all our citizens. To accomplish that goal, this past July, America took another big step forward when the President signed into law the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which ensures that all workers – including those with disabilities – have access to 21st-century job training and employment opportunities. This is a big step in the push to strengthen employment opportunities for people with disabilities and will make a tremendous difference in the lives of people around the country.

As the world leader in disability rights, we also have a responsibility to ensure all of the world’s one billion people with disabilities have the right to access all aspects of their communities. That’s why, in 2006, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), modeled on our own ADA. The Convention was negotiated by President George W. Bush and signed by President Obama, and it now needs to be ratified by the Senate so the United States can continue to be the world leader in disability policy and practices. The passage of the CRPD is a central component of the work still ahead to expand disability rights and I will continue to raise awareness until it is approved by the full Senate. It’s an uphill fight, but I am optimistic. For the U.S. to be a shining city on a hill, an example to the world, the Senate needs to ratify this treaty and reassert American leadership on disability rights.

Senator Harkin was one of the authors of the ADA, and upon its passage delivered the first-ever speech on the Senate floor in American Sign Language . He may be reached at harkininstitute@drake.edu.

State Representative Dave Heaton, Iowa House District 84

I have served in the Iowa House of Representatives for 20 years. After winning the November 2014 election I will proudly serve the citizens of southern Iowa, House District 84, for two more years. I am happy to provide my reflections of the impact of the ADA both on my legislative career as well as my constituents of my District.

As the Chair of the Health and Human Services Budget Committee, I am acutely aware of the impact the ADA is having on the direction of services provided by our state to its citizens with disabilities. I am happy to say that our state continues to make meaningful changes in the service delivery system to better ensure that all Iowans with disabilities have opportunities to live, work, and fully participate in their community. The recent redesign efforts of our Mental Health and Disability Services System draw heavily on the Olmstead decision. The Olmstead decision would not have been reached if not for the ADA.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit with a young man in Midland, Michigan, who had significant disabilities, but yet was self-directing his services. The visit showed me that when barriers to inclusion are removed and appropriate services and supports are provided, individuals who once were thought of as unable to live in the community could successfully do so.

Challenges remain in fulfilling the intent of the ADA. One problem for policymakers and politicians is that we can’t have an open checkbook to meet all the needs of all individuals. There is simply not enough money to go around. Sometimes we have to make tough decisions. Federal fiscal participation to encourage, provide direction, and assist us to move forward is critical.

My chief concern is that we must have the infrastructure, services, and providers to serve our citizens with disabilities in the most inclusive environment. We have issues with affordable housing, securing meaningful integrated employment, and accessible transportation. My goal is that all Iowans with disabilities live a meaningful and fully participatory life. The ADA has influenced that.

It is also interesting to note how the ADA is affecting every citizen, even those without disabilities. For example, a house built on one level will often be more marketable than one with stairs. Curb cuts help a lot of individuals to have easier access to community settings or events. Here in my hometown of Mount Pleasant, mothers with children in strollers and older citizens who might use walkers all enjoy the new curb cuts for easier access to our central park. Oftentimes people use the elevator in our courthouse for convenience rather than take the stairs. These latter two improvements were the direct result of the ADA.

Rep. Heaton may be reached at dave.heaton@legis.iowa.gov.

Terry Cunningham, Member, Regional Advisory Committee for Mental Health and Disability Services of East Central Iowa

Since the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law on July 26, 1990, many significant strides have been made to enable individuals with disabilities to fully participate on an equal basis in everyday life:

  • Accessibility at the local level has included, but not been limited to, expanded use of curb cuts that allow individuals with mobility issues to enjoy not only their neighborhoods, but their entire community. Accessibility at the local level also improves access to schools, entertainment venues, retail stores, restaurants, and public buildings. These features also make life easier for persons with children, persons with aging issues, postal personnel, and many others.
  • Transportation systems, while still not what they should be, have made improvements which were mere dreams when the ADA came into effect. Now school systems, public transit systems, trains, cross-country buses, and airplanes offer individuals with disabilities accessible options to travel around not only home communities, but around the world.
  • Housing that is affordable, accessible, and safe has become more common, although units are not growing nearly as fast as the demand for them. Individuals with disabilities have the opportunity to live in a setting designed for their own needs while being a truly integrated member of society as they enjoy the American Dream of home ownership.

The last major portion of the ADA left unfilled is related to employment. This could be the most difficult accomplishment yet because it requires an entire attitude adjustment by employers of all types regarding just what persons with disabilities are able to accomplish in the workforce. This will also require an attitude adjustment by future coworkers. Instead of looking at persons with disabilities as individuals who need to be pitied or cared for, now they must be viewed as equals and capable of performing the same jobs as their coworkers without disabilities.

This is going to require a change of expectations from everyone involved: parents, educators, individuals with disabilities themselves, and employers. No longer will qualifying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) become a career accomplishment; individuals with disabilities must be expected, and given the opportunity, to support themselves to the fullest extent possible. These changes in societal expectations from the earliest possible time will change individual expectations and result in persons with disabilities having the same expectations placed on them as individuals without disabilities. This will also give individuals with disabilities opportunities to set and achieve goals of their own and benefit from the rewards of their successes.

Sadly, as this article went to press, Mr. Cunningham passed away on March 19, 2015, in Iowa City. He will be remembered as a powerful disability advocate who was committed to the principle that everyone should have the opportunity to live and work in the community.