From Compliance to Commitment to Culture: Reflecting on the 32nd Anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

By Eileen Korey

Over the last 32 years, since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, 1990, progress has been measured by how quickly universities and institutions have moved from compliance with the law to the creation of a truly inclusive culture.

“The ADA was the floor, not the ceiling,” says Mary Grace Almandrez, vice president for diversity and inclusion. “As we reflect on the anniversary of the ADA, it’s important for us to understand how inclusion and accessibility fit into our diversity commitment. We must dismantle all the barriers to inclusive learning and move toward a more social justice and equity-minded framework.”

There is a need to press beyond the tenets of the ADA. “Like the experiences of persons with marginalized identities based on race, gender identity, and religion for instance, the civil rights laws that have provided some tools for protecting the disabled from discrimination have not eradicated the attitudinal barriers that society creates and that our social structures perpetuate,” says William N. Myhill, M.Ed., J.D., interim director and ADA/503/504 coordinator. “This is why compliance with the laws is not enough, and why we have offices of diversity and inclusion that champion equity, where attitudes fail to provide meaningful access in our learning materials, teaching practices, workplaces, and the information and communication technologies we use.”

It is the attitudinal transformation that is still underway, 32 years after the ADA became law.

“When you pass a civil rights law, a culture goes with it,” says Stephen Kuusisto, director of interdisciplinary programs and outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute. “A disability culture has begun to permeate the arts, the public sector, corporate life, even international diplomacy. But there is still a stigma attached to the disabled and the disfigured. And that’s why the unemployment rate for the disabled remains 70 to 80% in this country. And why only one in four students who enters college and identifies as disabled actually persists to graduation.”

“It is now a crucial time to recommit to the principles of the ADA for full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities,” says Peter Blanck, Ph.D., J.D., chairman of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI), a global advocacy organization for people with disabilities. BBI, a distinctive program built at Syracuse University by the former dean of its School of Education, has offices in Syracuse, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.

Valuing Diversity

The University’s draft Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Strategic Plan, states clearly that accessibility involves ensuring that “physical and psychological obstacles do not prevent individual achievement or participation.” Throughout its history, the University has acknowledged the value of diverse individuals, talents and experiences—from creating programs for nontraditional learners to the vast set services for students of color and underrepresented groups, as well as veterans and military-connected families.

Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted Syracuse University as one of the first universities in the nation to create a disability cultural center. In the article, “In Fight Against Ableism, Disabled Students Build Centers of Their Own,” the authors noted that such centers “help students find a sense of self and belonging” and “foster a sense of community, promote activism and disability justice.”

“There is still much work to be done to ensure full and equal participation of people with disabilities,” says Carrie Ingersoll-Wood, director of the Disability Cultural Center. “While the ADA provides specific protections for the disability community, the onus of enforcement and compliance of the law continues to fall on the individuals it protects. For example, if an individual with a disability faces discrimination on campus or at work, it is incumbent on the individual with the disability to file a complaint or lawsuit to enact compliance. Looking into the future, it is important that everyone on campus understand the importance and power of collective action to challenge ableism in all its forms. I think that modeling an inclusive community on campus is pivotal to driving positive generational and societal change toward embracing disability as a diverse identity.”

University leadership who collaborate on diversity and inclusion issues say policies and practice must be acutely sensitive to the intersection between the disabled and those who have been historically marginalized or discriminated against.

“Each year as we celebrate the anniversary of the ADA, it is important to reflect on the progress we have made in advancing disability rights, but it is equally important to acknowledge that the law is not always equally applied,” says Paula Possenti-Perez, director of the Center for Disability Resources. “Our diverse identities that intersect with disability, leaves many experiencing violence, oppression and discrimination. Our complacency is ableism; therefore, we must remain vigilant in our work toward upholding the ideals of the ADA.”

More Inclusive Approaches

The community that is defined as disabled is growing exponentially to include individuals with psychiatric, emotional and intellectual challenges—oftentimes defined as invisible disabilities—that demand more inclusive approaches to teaching and learning.

“We know that the adverse impact of the pandemic—from isolation to economic hardships to medical complications—was amplified for people with disabilities. Still, the pandemic forced all of us in academia to think more creatively about the learning process for all our students, and to redesign pedagogy and curricula,” says Almandrez. “Frankly, one of the principles of good design is that it is good for everyone. Now that we are moving through this pandemic, let’s not forget the inclusive thinking that values each individual for their potential and for their contributions.”

On this 32nd anniversary of the ADA, those who advocate for inclusion of individuals with disabilities see no difference between disability rights and human rights. The ADA, by establishing standards for compliance with the law, also inspired the world to see disability through an equity lens, and expanded opportunities for people with disabilities to contribute in countless ways to a dynamic campus culture, society at large, and progress on a global scale.

“There’s not much poetry in the ADA, but in a way, that’s what it needs,” says Kuusisto. “It needs more imagination.”


Original story – Syracuse University News: