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A look at the Americans with Disabilities Act as Nov. 4 approaches

October 23, 2008
Adirondack Daily Enterprise

On Sept. 25, the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA) was signed into law and will be effective begining Jan. 1, 2009.

Yes, I know there is an extra "A." It would sound dumb to say Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act. I didn't make the acronym.

So, what does this amendment to the original ADA mean? Why was it necessary? If you're thinking "what's the ADA in the first place?" come and see me and we'll chat.

The original ADA, signed into law in 1990, was the result of many years of persistent advocacy by the disability community, and in particular, the independent living community. Many of the people who were involved are still in the disability "biz" today and were the catalysts for the legislation.

In 1972, Congress passed a Rehabilitation Act, which was then vetoed by President Richard Nixon. Now, you have to remember the time period this occurred in. The Vietnam War was just ending and the stage was already set with a number of protests. This was no different in the disability community.

When it was announced that the act had been vetoed, disabilities activists rallied and staged a sit-in on Madison Avenue in New York City, stopping all traffic. This was followed by demonstrations across the U.S., complete with traffic and other disruptions, I'm sure.

In 1973, after the federal government had been bombarded with letters and phone calls in support of the Rehabilitation Act, Congress overrode the presidential veto and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 became law. This was the foundation that supports the independent living movement today.

In 1977, disability advocates knew the Rehab Act was going nowhere. No one had been assigned to implement it and no one had been assigned to enforce it. It basically wasn't worth the paper it was written on.

So, what's an independent-living advocate going to do? Until this point, only one thing seemed to work. Protest!

The Rehab Act was under the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. Disability folks gave a drop- dead date of April 4 to HEW to issue regulations for enforcement and implementation. April 4 came and went with no action by the secretary. On April 5, demonstrations again took place across the country. In Washington, D.C., protesters took over the building in which the Office of Health, Education and Welfare was located. They stayed until May 1 and left only when regulations were not only written by the secretary, but also approved of by disability advocates. One of the regulations was the creation of Centers for independent living run by people with disabilities for people with disabilities. This is the stock we come from.

The term "independent living" has been almost turned into something generic, a term that is often associated with senior citizens. That's fine, I guess, since I don't have a copyright to all the words in the English language.

The Rehab Act is very clear in defining Centers for Independent Living and states: Section 702 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended: Center for Independent Living. The term "center for independent living" means a consumer-controlled, community-based, cross-disability, nonresidential private nonprofit agency, which is designed and operated within a local community by individuals with disabilities and provides an array of independent living services.

A center for independent living is comprised of the following:

=51 percent of staff are persons with disabilities; 51 percent of board of directors are persons with disabilities; and provides four core services:

=Information and referral

=Independent living skills training

=Individual and systems advocacy

=Peer counseling

That's very clear and in no way references "retirement" communities and the like. "Independent living" as defined by federal law, belongs to Centers for Independent Living, period.

As it is today, "independent living," is tossed around in a number of ways and in various situations. That certainly makes our charge much harder. We have to explain our existence on a daily basis.

Independent living has a long history of struggle. The idea grew out of disability advocates putting everything on the line to see justice done. This is not a "roll over and play dead" group. We're a disability and civil rights organization. We'll go to the mat to ensure people with disabilities are treated fairly and given the same choices in life that are afforded to the rest of society.

Well, it looks like we'll have to talk about the ADAAA next time! You can be sure there were protests that brought those changes about, too.



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