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December 2005

by Paula Wolff

In July, 2005, Carr Massi, Ellen Nuzzi, Elliot Schloss and I did a workshop at the Disability Film Festival at Long Island University Brooklyn Campus. I was the moderator and started the panel with this opening speech.

Since the passage of the American With Disabilities Act (ADA) we now see signs for assistive listening devices in some movie theatres, electronic wheelchair door opening devices in many public buildings such as at Lincoln Center, and departments to provide accessibility to persons with different types of disabilities at museums and other public facilities. Our struggle for accessible public transportation has resulted in bus lifts on MTA buses, making it possible for people with disabilities to get to events (although our fight for accessible taxis, car services, and ferries and improved subway accessibility continues). We see more people with disabilities out on the buses, at cultural events, and around the community.

Unfortunately, the increased awareness that the ADA and other events have helped lead to have not yet lead to the full equality that is our goal. We see this when we look at the employment figures for persons with disabilities which have remained at an unemployment rate of approximately 70% for working age persons with disabilities, the same level as it was prior to the enactment of the ADA. In spite of the vast improvements in assistive technology including computer technology that enable persons with disabilities to perform tasks that were previously impossible without assistance enabling people with disabilities to live and work more independently, relatively few persons with disabilities have such equipment provided by their employers if they are able to overcome the attitudinal barriers that still keep most of our community unemployed, although studies have shown that accommodations for most employees cost under $500.

Employment is not the only area in which we see that we still have to struggle to achieve equality. We see continued attacks on the Americans With Disabilities Act in the Supreme Court which has sought to limit its interpretation of the law and its enforcement.

A Supreme Court decision, the Olmstead Decision, which requires that persons with disabilities receive treatment in the most integrated setting is now often thought of in our community as a type of declaration of independence for many thousands of persons with disabilities currently living in nursing homes and other institutional settings who wish to return to living in the community. But the promise of independence of the Olmstead Decision will remain unfulfilled if the government fails to provide accessible housing that people can afford on a Supplemental Security Income level income and the support services persons with disabilities need to live in that community. To date, the Olmstead Decision demonstrates increased awareness of persons with disabilities without the resources for full equality.