Personal Story

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

The ADA Has Made a Difference for Me

In this February 2015 interview, Carol Ely, a Community Program Specialist at the Institute on Community Integration, talked about some of the ways that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has made a difference in her life. Video clips of the interview are online at Self-Advocacy Online.

Q: What difference has the ADA made in your life?

A: I think one of the biggest differences the ADA has made for me as a person who uses a wheelchair is that it’s quite a bit easier to get around than it used to be in terms of being able to ride independently on the sidewalk, get down the curbs, get across the street. It’s also expanded the options that people with disabilities have when it comes to using methods of transportation. Now as well as having Metro Mobility [a local shared-ride paratransit provider] we can also use the transit buses along with people who do not have disabilities, and we can take the light rail. So it’s expanded horizons in a lot of ways so we can get out and do more things than used to be the case.

Q: Has it made a difference for you in terms of being able to work, to have a job?

A: Every job I’ve gotten so far I’ve gotten on my own. That does not mean it has not been a challenge. There have been a couple times in years past when I felt like the minute I came into the room, even though the interviewer didn’t say anything, I had the gut feeling that the first thing the person was looking at was not me but my wheelchair. Yes, the ADA has helped because legally you cannot not give me a job simply on the basis that I have a disability.

I happen to know a young lady in her 20s who is a college graduate and who has been having an extremely difficult time getting a job. I’m on the Employment Learning Committee with her and she’s a bright young lady who has a job, but it’s not one she wants so she’s looking for a new job. She’s said that when she goes into interviews – she also has Cerebral Palsy, as I do, but it’s a bit milder than mine so she uses a walker – she says that when she goes into an interview the first thing that she notices is that the interviewer’s eyes go down to her walker rather than looking straight at her. And she says, “The minute that I go into a room to get interviewed they don’t notice me first, or my qualifications, they notice my walker first.”

I do remember a job that I was interviewing for a number of years ago where during the interview the person who was the executive director just came out and said, “Well, how do I know that you’ll be reliable just in terms of getting to work, because I’ve heard about Metro Mobility. So how do I know you’re even going to come to work, or that you’re going to even want to come to work?” I explained that I can’t guarantee you I’ll always be on time, but I will do whatever I can to schedule rides in such a way that if they are late I’ve got a little wiggle room. She asked me about my general health. Because I have a disability she assumed I have a lot of health problems and that it would mean I’m not at work. I said that my health is as good as anyone else’s and that’s really not an issue. I said that in terms of wanting to go to work, I’ve been out of college since I was 25 (and I interviewed for that job when I was 34), so yes, I do want to come to work. I had gotten tired of okay, now you’ve got a job, but then in the next few days or months they run out of funding and you’re unemployed. I had one period when I was unemployed for two years, and it wasn’t for lack of looking.

Q: You mentioned education. Has the ADA played a role in you getting your college education, or in your work on a university campus today?

A: My mother has been the reason I got my education. Seriously, I wasn’t given a choice. I didn’t have a parent who said, “Well, you have a disability so you don’t have to do it.” I had a mother who said, “Yes, you do have a disability, but we’re going to figure out ways you’re going to do as much as you can do, and I expect you to get the best grades possible. If you don’t, we’ll take away the phone, and the other words, we’ll take away all the things you love the most.”

In terms of the ADA, when I started school here at the University of Minnesota that was before they had even passed the ADA. But there still was Disability Services, so I still did have the opportunity to say that I have a class in a building that’s not accessible, and I need to be in an accessible building. So they’d have to move the whole class. I have to admit that probably because I was youthful at the time it kind of made me feel powerful that I could make somebody move a whole class just for me. The same with curb cuts. A lot of times, even now, they’ll shovel snow and put it in front of curb cuts, and it was even worse when I was here as an undergraduate. So I’d go inside and call around until I found who shovels the snow and get them to move the snow. I remember one winter when I was living in the dorm there was literally too much snow for me to go to my final exams. So they arranged for a proctor to come to my dorm room, and that’s how I took my finals. So they did make accommodations even before the ADA.

Q: Is the ADA still important today?

A: I think the ADA is still important today for a lot of reasons. One is that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is still double that of persons without disabilities. So even though there’s a law that says if you can perform the essential qualifications of a job you should be able to get that job whether or not you have a disability, I think there’s still hesitation on the part of a lot of employers to hire people with disabilities because they think that they’re going to have to make accommodations that are very expensive, or that they’re going to somehow have to totally alter the job, or any number of things. So yes, I do think there’s a huge need still for the ADA.

In terms of affordable housing, for the most part people with disabilities live at or below the poverty level. There’s a whole problem with getting housing that is affordable and is in a place where you can feel relatively safe. I still don’t think that people with disabilities often have the choice to live in the situation they want. They find themselves living in, say, a group home when they’d rather have supports and live in their own home, for example. I think for those and many other reasons the ADA will be needed far into the future.

The other thing we still need to work on is that there’s still often an attitude that people have about people with disabilities and a lot of assumptions that are automatically made before somebody even talks to you if they see you in a wheelchair, or using a walker, or something like that.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the ADA?

A: I think the thing that I want to see more than anything else is that home and community-based services become better in terms of having more qualified people to provide in-home services so that more people have an opportunity to get out there and get jobs. You need services in your home in order to get out to do anything. If you don’t have good, reliable people who know what they’re doing then you can’t even attempt to get out there to see what you can do in terms of employment. So I want to see that get a lot better for people with disabilities. If you’ve got a job but you don’t have anybody to help you get ready for that job, if that’s what you need for your disability, then it’s all for naught. It’s another person with a disability living below the poverty level.