By Janine Bertram Kemp and Laura Hershey
Chairperson Marca Bristo holds the National Council on Disability's report on government enforcement of the ADA. The National Council on Disability (NCD) has released "Promises to Keep: A Decade of Federal Enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act," an exhaustive, 393-page report on government implementation of the ADA.
The report was released at a press conference Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Marca Bristo, NCD chairperson, led a panel of prominent disability and civil rights leaders in presenting the report.
"Promises to Keep" argues for a more proactive approach to implementing the ADA. It says that stronger enforcement is essential if citizens with disabilities are ever to achieve integration and parity in American society. The report team accuses the federal agencies charged with enforcing the ADA of not taking that role seriously.
Several agencies bear statutory obligation for enforcing the ADA, including the Department of Justice, the Department of Transportation and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The report states that overall federal agency enforcement is "reactive, overly cautious and lacks coherent, unifying national strategy."
No Budget Increases to Cover Costs
NCD researchers found the power of the ADA has been seriously weakened because the bulk of enforcement is uneven and done on a case-by-case basis. They highlighted the fact that the agencies responsible for enforcement received no budget increase to cope with the responsibilities added in 1992, when the provisions of the ADA actually took effect.
The NCD does not blame budget constraints for most of the enforcement agencies' failings. The record documents that the responsible government agencies have not been strategic in their approaches to ADA implementation and enforcement and that the media and the public still do not understand the ADA, its requirements or the resources needed to implement it. A public backlash against the act has resulted, says the NCD, and legal challenges reaching the Supreme Court have weakened the employment provisions.
"Promises to Keep" also calls attention to a lack of outreach to culturally diverse and rural communities. "There have been few efforts to ensure that technical-assistance materials and training opportunities in culturally appropriate formats are equally available to underserved individuals and covered entities in rural and culturally diverse communities, people with cognitive disabilities, people labeled with psychiatric disabilities, people living in institutions and youth and young adults."
Part of the Civil Rights Movement
Henderson's presence on the panel indicated the alliance between the broader civil rights movement and the disability community. He stated, "The ADA is to persons with disabilities what Brown v. Board of Education is to African Americans and the rest of the nation. This report shows we must be much more effective in enforcement." Henderson noted the need "for a massive public education effort" to educate the public about ADA and disability issues.
Following Henderson, Imparato said, "We thank the national civil rights community for joining the disability community." He explained that the Spirit of ADA torch relay centers on asking public officials and individuals to renew the pledge to the ADA and the IDEA. Imparato commended the NCD "for its courageous leadership in its unusually honest, objective assessment of a law that's captured the imagination of the disability community."
Imparato continued, "The federal effort to translate the requirements of ADA into real remedies for victims of discrimination during the last 10 years has been uneven, overly cautious and laboriously slow." Imparato also noted that Congress had undermined federal enforcement efforts by failing to increase agencies' funding to cover the increased workload the ADA brought on.
Jennifer Jones spoke of the discrimination faced by youth with disabilities. "I, too, have struggled to get the education and accommodation I need to be successful," Jones said. "I've talked to young people all over the country. We all have the same stories. We face problems getting transportation to jobs, getting interpreters for classes. All of us face the same barriers in school: access in classrooms, transportation, accommodations. We have problems getting seating in a restaurant. 'We don't think we can accommodate you right now,' we are told, even though there is a room full of empty tables."
The new report has sparked controversy which may continue for months or years to come.
EEOC Commissioner Paul Miller rejected its conclusions.
"I think the report got it wrong," Miller remarked at a recent conference in Chicago. "I think that the report is unfair, and I was very, very disappointed."
Miller, who has served as commissioner since 1994, defended the Clinton administration's civil rights enforcement record. He contrasted it with the Bush administration, which had "no systemic enforcement program" of civil rights laws, but rather "individual, piecemeal enforcement." (The ADA did not go into effect until after Bush was out of office. Miller was referring to other laws, including the Civil Rights Act.) In contrast, Miller said, the new administration, in 1992, inaugurated an era of "much more systemic, class-action, coordinated, aggressive" enforcement.
Some observers worry that the report might "be interpreted as an indictment of the ADA," as advocate Simi Linton put it, and that "elements of the report might be utilized to put holes in the ADA."
Nancy Mudrick, a researcher from Syracuse University who conducted the initial study that became the basis of the NCD report, defended her work.
"Those of us who were on the research team spent a lot of time thinking about these things," Mudrick said. "It's a very tricky issue."
She said federal officials responsible for ADA enforcement are "friends of the disability movement who had worked very hard, who understood the issues and had their heads in the right places about what needed to be done."
Nevertheless, after examining the facts, researchers concluded they
"wanted to see ADA enforcement improved," Mudrick said. This put the research
team in a "quandary," Mudrick explained, because "as researchers, you like
to believe that you can report honestly on what you saw.... Do you tell
it like you see it (although) you know that there's some risk that it gets
used by forces to destroy the act? Or do you just not say anything? This
is a very difficult moral issue, and I don't have a clear answer."
Laura Hershey is the CanDo.com Advocacy editor. Janine Bertram Kemp
is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and activist.