July 26th is National Disability Independence Day, a federally recognized day to celebrate the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The pioneering law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and guarantees their civil right to access education, transportation, employment and other services. Before the ADA, people with disabilities had no legal right to reasonable accommodation, including at universities and colleges.
Center for Inclusive Design & Engineering
Associate Professor Cathy Bodine, Executive Director of the Center for Inclusive Design and Engineering at CU Denver, entered the field of adaptive technology after working with people with cognitive impairments, including non-speaking people. “There were so many assumptions and prejudices about their abilities,” she said. “When I used technology to give voice to people with cognitive impairments who couldn’t speak, I was able to show that they can get involved and be part of the world.”
Becky Breaux, a PhD student in the Department of Health and Behavioral Sciences and senior research teacher at the Center for Inclusive Design and Engineering, shared a similar story. Breaux began her career as an occupational therapist. “When I provided tools, I felt it made a huge difference to my patients,” she said. “I realized what power technology can have for an individual to be more independent, safer and more comfortable – whatever is important to him.”
Before the ADA
Many Denver University students may be too young to remember what the lives of people with disabilities were like before the ADA went into effect. Daily life in the pre-ADA era was a struggle. Imagine yourself in a wheelchair trying to enter a building without a ramp. Or being legally blind and not having access to a Braille menu.
Jennifer Maxwell, Digital Accessibility Coordinator at Community College of Denver, has two disabilities. “I use a wheelchair and am legally blind. I use a lot of the technology I teach, ”she said. She was lucky: she went to college after the ADA went into effect, so she had a much easier experience.
She didn’t know how difficult life was for people with disabilities before the ADA – until she did some research. “From a textbook perspective, it sounds like the ADA went into effect overnight,” she said. “History glosses over the fact that people really had to work to get these laws into effect.” Learning about disability activism relativizes the importance of the ADA. “It really opened my eyes – I had no idea what people went through in the 70s and 80s.”
Bodine pointed out that local disability activists help shape public policy. “Denver had the first bus lay-in,” she said. “People with mobility problems got out of their wheelchairs and asked for accessible buses.” This 1978 Denver protest, in which people with disabilities blocked traffic on Broadway and Colfax by putting them on the street, was the first right-wing protest public transport. “As with any civil rights issue, it was necessary to correct an injustice,” added Bodine.
Higher education for students with disabilities
Research shows that more students with disabilities enrolled in college after the ADA. While these students can benefit from the law, they still face difficulties that people without disabilities do not. “I speak from experience,” said Maxwell. “The main difficulty is that many students who come out of the K12 system are guided in a very protective and regulated manner by their parents and special educators, who always endorse each other at their behest.” In college, however, they have to for themselves enter yourself.
Maxwell pointed out that the majority of students with disabilities on the Auraria campus have invisible disabilities – “mental health problems, PTSD, autism, things you can’t see outwardly”. After being identified as people with disabilities in school, many students with hidden disabilities want to forget the stigma they faced as children. “They think they can do it all on their own, and then they get really into trouble in the first and second semesters because they don’t get the support they need,” explains Maxwell.
Doctoral student Gabriel Gates, who is working on his EdD at the School of Education & Human Development, said that while ADA grants people with disabilities like him their civil rights, it is not always easy for them: “In my lived experience this is The fight for justice was a heavyweight fight with endless rounds, and antagonists tried to get the result of the fight before it was over. “
Letter versus spirit of law
Breaux believes that National Disability Independence Day must recognize the rights of people with disabilities. “The ADA is extremely important,” she said, “but there is still a lot to be done.” Graduate student Gates agrees. “I am grateful for everything ADA has done to ensure equality, social justice and, most importantly, independence for people with disabilities,” he said. “I appreciate and celebrate all the accomplishments ADA has helped us since it was founded in July 1990.”
Maxwell agrees. “There’s the letter of the law and then there’s the Spirit – how good things can be,” she said. “It often happens that the construction work is limited to the bare minimum of the legal requirements.”
The same goes for technology. “A lot of software has compliance testing tools that you can use to see if documents are accessible to people with disabilities,” said Maxwell. “They are looking for very rigid, fixed standards; They don’t really reflect the spirit of full access and integration that we’re really looking for. ”Bodine made a similar point:“ People don’t design with full accessibility in mind – be it a building, a widget, a wheelchair or a street corner . “
Bodine conducted a study at the Center for Inclusive Design and Engineering in collaboration with Utah State University. With the help of focus groups, the researchers examined the daily accessibility problems for people in wheelchairs. “It was amazing how many people told us that their motorized wheelchair battery was dead in an inconvenient place,” she said. “Some of them have been sent to prison or hospital. The assumption was that you weren’t moving, so you must be sick. “
Maxwell, Bodine, and Breaux all hope colleges, corporations, and governments go beyond the bare minimum and invest in universal design. “I’m a big believer in universal design,” said Maxwell. “It’s about multiple forms of engagement, expression … really meeting students where they are.” She believes that universal design benefits everyone, not just people with disabilities. Accessible teaching can benefit an ESL student while it benefits a visually impaired student; it’s a win-win situation.
At the Center for Inclusive Design & Engineering, Bodine and Breaux observe how companies develop technologies that support universal design. “What happened to Apple, for example,” said Breaux. “Nobody is asking them to make iPhones more accessible; You do this because people with disabilities are a huge market. “
I asked if the ADA needed to expand its scope to include cellular and digital technologies. “Technology is moving so fast and federal regulatory processes are moving so slowly,” said Bodine. In an increasingly computerized world, Bodine believes that well-designed accommodations will be an answer to market needs. According to the US Census Population Projections, 2034 will have more children over the age of 65 for the first time in US history. “The older generation as a market will drive change more strongly. How many of us will be able to get in and drive a car by 2050? We will need autonomous vehicles, ”she said.
Population projections of the adult US population over 65 from “Demographic Turning Points for the United States: Population Projections for 2020 to 2060”
Range of skills
The ADA benefits people with and without disabilities. Bodine addressed situational disabilities: “If you go somewhere where the sound level is so high that you cannot sleep and don’t sleep for a few nights, then your cognition drops.” Even a loud bar can cause a situational disability. “Use subtitles,” said Bodine. “It wasn’t designed to be used in a bar, but it turns out you can’t hear the game in a bar.”
In addition, people without disabilities can become people with disabilities. “A 20 year old brain takes up the whole skull,” said Bodine. “Your brain literally shrinks with age. Thinking and remembering can take a long time. We are all on a continuum of different functional levels at all times – this is why the ADA is so crucial. “
People with disabilities are an under-represented and underserved community, Maxwell said. “It’s good that in the last few years disabilities have become a bigger part of the conversation in the world of diversity, equality and inclusion,” she said. “Its a lot to do. Just because something exists as a law doesn’t mean the discrimination is gone – it’s about changing hearts and changing minds. “