Reflecting on the ADA with UCP Staff and Interns

Coauthored by Sara Shemali and James O’Connor

Two women pose for a photo in front of the Capitol Building. One of the women is using an electric wheelchair.

“When I was 15 or 16 years old my best friend, my sister and I decided to go out for ice cream. We went to a new shop in the town nearby. Even though it was a new building, it was an old style ice cream shop that had been built to invoke that aesthetic; and, there was no ramp in the front of the store– only steps. The only ramp was in the back, leading up to the emergency exit. The employees told us they weren’t allowed to let us in through the back door. We were shocked but, after arguing and getting nowhere, we went someplace else. When we got home, I was still pretty upset. When my mom asked what happened, we told her the story. And she explained to me that what I had experienced was discrimination and illegal under the ADA. I think that was the first time I really understood what the ADA meant for me as a person with a disability.“

 

This is what our supervisor, Karin Hitselberger, said when asked about her most memorable experience of the ADA as a child. We spoke to her and Kaitlyn Meuser, the Marketing Specialist here at United Cerebral Palsy’s National Office, right before today’s 27th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because we wanted to gain insight into the many ways that the ADA has shaped the experiences of individuals with disabilities in America.

 

As Program and Development interns for UCP’s National Office, James and I started our summer with a lot to learn about the history of the disability rights movement. We both carried what turned out to be fairly common misconceptions about the ADA, and we asked Karin and Kaitlyn, who both happen to have cerebral palsy, about some of those most common misconceptions.

 

For me, learning more about the ADA throughout my internship, I realized just how comprehensive of a piece of legislation the ADA is. Whereas some may know it only as the law that regulates curb cuts and ramps, or just an anti-discrimination law, in reality it serves both of those purposes in addition to many more. Karin continued by highlighting just how multifaceted the ADA is. She pointed out the misconception and tendency to discuss the ADA in only one of its many capacities, without appreciating the diverse avenues in which it helps individuals with disabilities.

 

Karin also discussed the pivotal role that individuals with disabilities played in crafting the ADA. While the role of passionate allies cannot be overlooked, the engagement of individuals who encounter the barriers that the ADA addresses daily was crucial to passing the ADA law that we know today.

 

As a person without a disability, I had experienced the ADA in action even before I became an intern at UCP, although I had always witnessed it as an outside observer. One vivid memory I will always remember is a neighbor of mine, with cerebral palsy, whose mother had to advocate for him to be involved in gym class, and given the reasonable accommodations he needed to participate. Gym class was a privilege I had always taken for granted, but he had to fight to be afforded the opportunity I had. Interning at UCP has allowed me to step out of my bystander role and become more informed and involved on issues related to disability. Instances of discrimination in schools, hiring, and the workplace still occur today, but one point both Karin and Kaitlyn brought up was that because of the passage of the ADA, such discrimination is illegal (such as refusal to provide reasonable accommodations), and action can be taken to stop these practices. The ADA sets a baseline: a clear standard for inclusion, which is not only vital in itself but also opens the door to continue the conversation about disability and the next steps towards truly equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities.

 

My fellow intern James shares his perspective below:

 

When I started my summer here at UCP National, I was at least aware of the existence of the ADA, but was not even close to understanding its importance. As I have gotten to know more people who have been personally impacted by this legislation, and learned more about the history of the disability rights movement, I’ve come to understand how transformative the ADA has been to the disability community. It has enabled so many people to work, travel, and access the world around them.

 

My experience at UCP has allowed me to connect the curb-cuts and accessible elevators, that I see everyday, to the freedom and rights of the friends I have made here. I’ve had the pleasure of traveling to and from various events with Karin, who uses a wheelchair, and have had to rethink so much that I previously took for granted. I now find myself constantly looking for ramps and elevators, and generally reevaluating the accessibility of my surroundings. It really has fundamentally changed the way that I see the world, and I feel that I am beginning to understand how important the ADA is as a result.

 

Although the ADA is a much-needed starting point for legislation regarding disability, Karin and Kaitlyn agree there is more work that needs to be done to remove substantial barriers that individuals with disabilities still face. Getting into buildings is a right that needs to be afforded to individuals with disabilities, but access to the building itself is not the end of accessibility. Karin points out that physically having the ability to get into a movie theatre isn’t enough if a wheelchair user wouldn’t have anywhere to sit, or if there are no closed captions for someone who is Deaf. Cultural inclusion and universal design for individuals with disabilities are both still a work in progress.

 

While there is work remaining to continue to advance the rights of people with disabilities, it is of paramount importance to reflect on how much closer the ADA has brought us towards the ideals of equality and civil rights for all people.

ADA Education and Reform Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a historic piece of civil rights legislation for  individuals with disabilities, was passed 27 years ago this week. Since that time, individuals with disabilities have been able to seek enforcement of the law to ensure that they have access to public spaces.

 

The ADA helps to curb the discrimination faced by people with disabilities but Congress is currently considering the ADA Education and Reform Act, a bill that would change the ADA: granting more leniency to businesses, and prolonging the process of remedying ADA failures by these businesses. The bill is controversial and many advocates for people with disabilities are speaking up against it.

 

Supporters of the bill seek to remedy the issue of “drive by” lawsuits, a term used to describe when a person goes to a business for the singular purpose of filing a lawsuit under the ADA. These lawsuits are seen by many as solely efforts of financial gain at the expense of businesses, instead of efforts to resolve legitimate barriers to access for individuals with disabilities. While the existence of such lawsuits is problematic, there is no consensus on the best way to address this issue.

 

The bill would allow business owners a “pause in litigation,” giving them 60 days to acknowledge their violation of the ADA, and then another 120 days to make “substantial progress” towards remedying the issue. The bill, currently being considered in the house, has 14 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle. Although not an issue that is divisive along party lines, the bill does not draw universal support because of its civil rights and practical implications.

 

While the supporters of the bill seek to protect businesses, its opponents strive to protect the civil rights of individuals with disabilities. The ADA has been recognized as a crucial step towards inclusion and civil rights for individuals with disabilities, and its importance for individuals with disabilities cannot be overstated. It would be reasonable to assume that individuals with disabilities would support legislation which strengthened the ADA—the very legislation that guarantees them civil rights. Yet, individuals in the disability community and their advocates are opposed to the poorly-named ADA Education and Reform Act.

 

As a reminder, the ADA does not require the payment of monetary damages to individuals with disabilities when a violation occurs. Rather, it is a handful of states that have laws which allow monetary damages, which is how “drive by” lawsuits became profitable for plaintiffs in those states.

 

This proposed law would amend the ADA by requiring an individual with a disability to submit a special notice to the business. The individual would have to consult a legal adviser to craft the notice, and include the specific sections of the ADA that are being violated. Thus, the burden rests on the individual with the disability, once they are denied access to a public accommodation, to have extensive knowledge of the ADA and to seek legal counsel to provide this special notice to the business.

 

Once the notice has been provided to a business, the business has nearly six months to make any progress regarding the violation, even when the issue would not take much time or money to fix. This is the case with ADA concerns, because the ADA already contains provisions which protect businesses, only requiring that changes be made when they are readily achievable and can be done “without much difficulty or expense.” Even then, there exist extensive resources for business owners to make these changes, including a Department of Justice ADA hotline and website, and ten federally funded ADA centers which provide resources and training in every state.

 

The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (of which UCP is a member) opposes the bill: 

“We know of no other law that outlaws discrimination but permits entities to discriminate with impunity until victims experience that discrimination and educate the entities perpetrating it about their obligations not to discriminate. Such a regime is absurd, and would make people with disabilities second-class citizens.”

 

In short, this bill is an inefficient means to address the issue of “drive by” lawsuits, and creates substantial barriers to the enforcement of the civil rights of the world’s largest minority group, individuals with disabilities.  

 

Summer Camp For All

Image Description: A group of campers of all abilities smiling and enjoying their time around the pool.

Image Description: A group of campers of all abilities smiling and enjoying their time around the pool.

We can all fondly remember our summer camp experiences, exploring the outdoors and making memories. Summer camp, a place of adventure, excitement, and growth, is on the agenda for many children with and without disabilities this summer, and there are a multitude of options when it comes to choosing the perfect camp for you or your child.

United Cerebral Palsy’s affiliates around the country offer many different summer camp experiences. United Cerebral Palsy of Mobile’s Camp Smile, one of a handful of camps open to campers regardless of the severity of their disability or their financial means, is a camp exclusively for individuals with disabilities and their siblings. Glenn Harger, President and CEO of United Cerebral Palsy of Mobile, notes that Camp Smile “adapts to a child’s needs, instead of asking children to adapt to the camp.” United Cerebral Palsy of Delaware similarly invites children with and without a variety of disabilities to their two stellar day camps, Camp Lenape and Camp Manito. These camps foster friendships and make it possible for siblings to attend the same camp as children with disabilities. The camps, founded on the idea that children with disabilities are kids first, seek to create an inclusive environment for all children.

Image Description: A camper swimming in the pool with the help of a flotation device and two counselors.

Image Description: A camper swimming in the pool with the help of a flotation device and two counselors.

Camps Smile, Lenape, and Manito, in addition to many others, offer accessible grounds, dietary adjustments, and a greater proportion of camp counselors to campers than traditional camps. For example, Camp Smile makes accessibility a priority with its wheelchair accessible pathways, air conditioned log cabins and multi-purpose buildings, as well as an accessible bath house, among other amenities. Many camps across the nation specialize in specific services for children with disabilities. Some camps offer on-site speech and occupational therapy, teach campers how to ride bikes, focus on art therapy, or specialize in helping children succeed academically. Camps Lenape and Manito offer accessible swimming, with in-pool ramps to accommodate campers of all abilities and plenty of volunteers to help.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of camps which focus on disability is the lasting impact they can have on campers. Glenn recalled a young girl, around the age of four, and the evidence of her growth: “She just never smiled. The counselors put her on a horse and she had the biggest grin on her face.” Research supports the notion that children can benefit significantly from summer camps. A 2010 study published in the American Journal of Play found that camps can have positive cognitive, social, and identity effects on campers by combining skill improvement with fun and social activities.

Bill McCool, the Executive Director of United Cerebral Palsy of Delaware, fondly remembers the story of one young camper who had behavioral challenges, but for whom camp had a meaningful impact. The camper returned to UCP of Delaware when he was an adult, completely changed and matured, and applied to be an employee at the camp to help other young children benefit from the summer camp that had changed his life. Moved by this experience, McCool explained: “It means an awful lot when you see your campers become adults and you see who they become, at least in part because of the camp. That’s true for kids with disabilities, children without, and our volunteers. And many of them want to come back here!”

It’s no surprise that campers and volunteers alike look forward to returning to summer camps. At Camp Smile, campers can participate in zip lining, a ropes course, horseback riding, archery, swimming, fishing, and many more fun activities. The camp’s mission? To empower children and adults with disabilities to lead a life without limits.

 

Wondering if there is a UCP camp near you? Below is a partial list of United Cerebral Palsy affiliates that offer camp experiences.

ADAPT Community Network (New York City)

Easter Seals UCP (North Carolina and Virginia)

Stepping Stones Ohio

UCP of Central California

UCP of Central Florida

UCP Central Minnesota

UCP of Delaware

UCP of Greater Hartford

UCP Heartland (Missouri)

UCP of Hudson County (New Jersey)

UCP Land of Lincoln (Illinois)

UCP of MetroBoston

UCP of Mobile

UCP of Sacramento and Northern California

UCP of San Luis Obispo

UCP of Stanislaus and Tuolumne Counties

UCP of Tampa Bay

UCP of the Golden Gate

UCP of the North Bay

UCP of West Alabama

UCP of West Central Wisconsin

 

This post was written by Sara Shemali, Summer 2017 Programs and Development Intern at UCP National.