ADA at 25: Progress and peril

July 26 is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As President of the National Federation of the Blind, one of the oldest and largest organizations of disabled Americans, I recognize that the ADA was made possible through our self-determined action as people with disabilities, and there are many achievements we should celebrate after twenty-five years of progress. But while I continue to be hopeful about our future, I also view this anniversary as a time to be significantly concerned about new barriers that threaten our full participation in society. Most significantly, we are largely excluded from the technologies that make education, work, and life easier for most other Americans. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Blind people can access computer software, websites, and mobile applications using technologies such as text-to-speech engines and electronic Braille displays. But these tools only work well when electronic information and technology are designed to be compatible with them. Every day, most blind people, and many others with disabilities, encounter barriers to performing otherwise routine tasks, such as paying bills or booking a flight. At best, these barriers are merely frustrating-at worst, they can lead to loss of productivity, educational opportunity, or employment. The need for accessible technology in the classroom is particularly acute. If we are shut out of education, what future do we have? 

The ADA was written before the Internet and other electronic and information technologies came into everyday use. Unfortunately, many assert that the law therefore cannot apply to these technologies. A few courts have recognized that there is no fundamental difference between selling merchandise or providing services over the internet and providing those same goods or services at a brick-and-mortar location. We have been told that the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) shares this common-sense view, and its recent settlements with providers of online services, including the online grocery delivery service Peapod and the massive open online course platform EdX, indicate this to be the case. Furthermore, DOJ signaled its intent in 2010 to issue regulations applying the ADA to the internet. But five years later, the regulations, although they have apparently been drafted, have not been issued. So we must still fight for access website by website, app by app, institution by institution. Sometimes, the entities involved tell us that they have no legal or moral obligations to us. To such entities, we are merely a tiny market segment, and accommodating us isn’t worth their effort. Others tell us that they understand that accessibility is “the right thing to do,” but that we will simply have to wait, like well-behaved children, until they get around to it. I believe that this situation is a bigger threat to the true independence and first-class citizenship of Americans with disabilities than many of the barriers we faced before the ADA.

We realize that laws, by themselves, cannot change long-held attitudes. Even with the passage of the ADA-a significant step toward equal rights under the law for people with disabilities-our capacity to work, to raise families, and to be a part of community life is still unrecognized in many contexts. We are the only class of people who can legally be paid less than the federal minimum wage. This occurs primarily within institutions stating they have our best interest in mind, but which lack the expertise or desire to create real training and employment opportunities. Blind parents like my wife and I live in fear that a well-meaning case worker will snatch our children away in the wake of some routine childhood mishap, simply because we are blind. America’s blind children—like our daughters Oriana and Elizabeth—continue to face low expectations in school systems that do not value the tools and techniques that the blind use to be successful—such as Braille. 

The National Federation of the Blind is dedicated to inspiring people with disabilities to believe in themselves and create the systemic change that will free them from these environments of low expectations, and to fighting discrimination wherever we uncover it. Therefore, as the ADA’s silver anniversary approaches, I urge all Americans with disabilities, and those who love us and support our aspirations, to commit ourselves to renewed collective action to tackle the barriers that still prevent all too many of us from living the lives we want. Together, with love, hope, and determination, we can turn the dream of a society that values and includes all of us into reality.

Riccobono is president of the National Federation of the Blind.