Americans with Disabilities Act turns 30 in 2020, more work to be done both nationally and locally

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which offers legal protections to people with disabilities, has been in effect since 1990, but people with disabilities still face challenges in the educational sphere today. 

Assistant professor of teaching and learning Jennifer Hernandez teaches about the history of the ADA in an education course. Hernandez said the main purpose of the ADA is to ensure access to public spaces. 

“ADA really allows people with disabilities, especially physical disabilities, access to public spaces, but only public spaces. It doesn’t protect them in private locations. So for example, if I went to a really expensive, wealthy country club, they might have one sidewalk or one door that opens but they wouldn’t necessarily be required to make every inch of their space accessible,” Hernandez said.  

Hernandez said self-contained environments for students with disabilities are one thing that harms students with disabilities because they do not get interaction with their peers without disabilities.  

“We have classrooms, we have schools and then we actually in this area have a school district, Special School District of St. Louis County, not 25 minutes from Edwardsville, is an entire school district set up just to support the needs of students with disabilities. But that actually keeps them from, a majority of the time, being able to get … access to having an educational opportunity with their average peers, their non-disabled peers,” Hernandez said. 

ACCESS Director Dominic Dorsey said the ADA sparked conversations about educational programs becoming more inclusive, such as math courses allowing calculators when the main purpose is for students to know when to use an equation. 

“What are we attempting to judge, and are we creating barriers that are not really getting to the heart of what we want students to demonstrate? ADA opened up those conversations for students to be able to take part in, and to allow institutions and faculty as well to start looking at, ‘What is really the core, essential [ability] that we are trying to get students to master in this course?’ As opposed to creating environments where we’re excluding individuals, either absent-mindedly or intentionally,” Dorsey said. 

Ronda Morris, a concierge for Esquiline, from Caseyville, Illinois, experienced a stroke when she was 10 years old. This gave her limited use of her left side and caused her to lose feeling on the surface of her left side. Morris said this limits her in activities that require two hands and distance walking, but job placement offered by the Department of Rehabilitation, through the ADA, helped her to find a job.  

“They helped me with the resume, and they helped me with mock interviews, which I knew how to do, they just wanted to make sure. And then when the job [came] along, then they called and talked to the one that does the hiring. I still had to go in for the interview, but what’s something else the Department of Rehabilitation does is if a company hires someone that’s disabled … they get a tax break at the end of the year,” Morris said.   

Dorsey said although society has become more inclusive, there are opportunities to allow students more accessibility before they have to ask. 

“The more we start looking at class design, the more we start looking at event programming, the more we start looking at building spaces as a true opportunity for all individuals regardless of ability level to be included; I think they will get a whole lot closer to the spirit of the ADA. But right now, we still have far too many people who are enamored with the letter of the law, as opposed to the spirit,” Dorsey said. 

New Horizons President Julia Goren, a junior sociology major from High Ridge, Missouri, said the organization gives students with disabilities a space to voice their concerns, and she sent out a survey to see what their concerns are this semester. She said while many of the concerns centered around burnout and Zoom fatigue, others were related to campus accessibility. 

“Some students complained about actual accessibility on campus, like with the snow being piled up in the handicapped spaces and just overall accessibility,” Goren said. “Even in the Goshen, because there’s only one ramp in the Goshen Lounge, and there should be one on the other side parallel to that just to make it easier. And then someone wanted a bench in the lower level of the Student Success Center next to Health Services, and we’re trying to get that put in too.”

To learn more about New Horizons or ACCESS, visit their websites.

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