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Disabled councilmember shares insights on disability, local governments and the ADA.

The following speech was given by Council President Linda L.S. Schulte of Laurel, Maryland in the fall of 1992 before an audience of city, town and county officials. As an elected official with a disability, Schulte is a knowledgable spokesperson on the topic of local government compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Her speech has been excerpted for Nation's Cities Weekly readers.

What changes we have seen over my short lifetime! There are airplanes that hold more people today than the apartment building in my old neighborhood. The Berlin wall was both erected and dismantled in our lifetime. We have people who commute regularly to outer space...We've seen Jupiter and Saturn up close and personal, and soon we'll be watching Mars. Tremendous changes and tremendous upheaval often go hand-inhand!

But through all these changes and upheavals, we all knew that there were certain basic tenets of life that we could cling to as eternal truths, like:

* Milk is good for you..., well, maybe if you're a calf.

* Your body temperature is normal if it's 98.6 degrees ..maybe, maybe not,.

* And of course, margarine is healthier for you than butter...

Times of great change often cause great anxiety and this/E/E

It prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in transportation, employment and telecommunications.

Not only did the ADA open doors of opportunities for our fellow citizens with disabilities, but it stipulates how wide that door must be and mandates the removal of any barrier lying in front of that door. Many of the provisions of the ADA are self-executing -- businesses and governments are REQUIRED to do certain things, but how to execute these tasks is unclear deliberately. It is our collective challenge to define the outlines of the bill and to color in the subtle tones and textures that will make this law take place.

Since the passage of the ADA, we have heard the rhetoric of the politicians, the poetry of the Fourth Estate, and we've listened to the hopes of those who would be the architects of our future. But now there's silence. The question is, is it a silence of acquiescence or the quiet of anticipation?

Some critics have looked at the weaknesses of the ADA and have gone so far as to suggest that this masterpiece of compromise isn't worth the paper it's written on. I am not one of those critics, but I do admit that I have always had great difficulty using the word "compromise" in the same sentence. with the words "human rights." Isn't it an amazing assumption that society has the right to bargain with a person's rights? I would ask those who would apportion to us the rights that we have always had whether they view the Declaration of Independence as some sort of 401K retirement plan which is paid out in installments with only a small penalty to be paid later on.

Make no mistake about it; the ADA is civil rights legislation. It is not an adjustment to the building cede. It is not a transportation act. And we must be determined to see it enforced, because a civil right without enforcement is a civil wrong. A civil right without the complete understanding and commitment of its constituency is a civil wrong. The challenge before us is how to best and properly enforce a bill that is vague. What real guarantees of enforcement do people with disabilities have?

We must also know the legal rights of our people in order to properly enforce them.

We need a powerful, collective determination to make the ADA work. Mederation is NOT the answer to this civil rights movement any more than it was in the early Sixties.

We must stop viewing the passage of the ADA as the end of a battle and consider it the beginning of new challenges. We do not have the luxury of procrastination. Nor can we be interested in compromise. Someone once wrote that 'When you are right, you cannot be too radical...When you are wrong you cannot be too conservative."

Each of you in your positions in your towns cannot wait for other people's judgments.

Successful implementation of the ADA is a long-term proposition. Careful, reasoned efforts to educate and inform our governments, our businesses, our citizens must be the first step in that process ....

For example, lees review a typical city's job qualification standards and blanket personnel policies. Many of them have no relationship at all with the job requirement or to the actual tasks associated with the job. What the ADA mandates is a modification of that policy practice. For instance, many municipalities require job applicants to have valid driver's license, even though driving a city vehicle is not part of their job. To what end?

Under the ADA, job descriptions are not required, but they should adequately reflect the essential duties of the job. As city officials, you must look at the work that is actually done by the individual in that job and what the previous person in the job actually did.

Your law enforcement personnel must devise practices and procedures for dealing with people with disabilities, particularly those with communication or mental impairments.

The tools you use to communicate municipal messages to your citizens must be available to all.

Change brings apprehension and anxiety .... In the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King said, 'Our people are prejudged by the color of their skin..not by the content of their character." In the Nineties, three decades later, many of us are judged by the way we sit, walk, listen or see. Dr. King continued, 'One Nation's other Birmingham's." And then he answered, "A methodology and philosophy of revolution is neither born nor accepted overnight From the moment it emerges, it is subjected to rigorous tests, opposition, scorn and prejudice. The old guard in any society resents new methods. For old guards wear the decorations and medals won by waging battle in the ACCEPTED manner. Opposition comes not only from conservatives who cling to tradition, but also from the militants who favor neither the OLD nor the NEW..."

All of you in city and county government are on the battie lines. It will fall to you to help weave the fabric that will be worn by many of your fellow citizens with disabilities. Your actions will help to answer some of the questions of the ADA, such as "What is truly reasonable accommodation in the face of unreasonable discrimination? What is truly an undue hardship and for whom"?.

'Our surest guarantee to make the, ADA work lies in our very alliance with each other -- to find our similari'ties, not in our differences. For human beings with all of our faults, our individual needs, and weaknesses are what make social reform. We must make mistakes, learn from them, make more mistakes and learn anew. Time and action are our teachers. And we must speak with one voice.

We must embrace an alliance formed with the ADA and extend it to embrace others in the community. These are the challenges of the ADA. The ADA may have weaknesses, hollow rhetoric and it may even be vague and flawed, but it offers us a blueprint for change. It gives us all appropriate choices.

Remember two-thirds of our working age people with disabilities are unemployed. The passage of the ADA did not automatically give any of those people jobs, but it helps ensure that they get a foot in the door...sometimes literally .... all need to work...with persistence, with discipline and with aggressiveness. The poet DANTE said "The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those, who, in times of great moral crisis, maintained their neutrality." I wish you the courage to undertake this task!
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Title Annotation:includes related article on an ADA compliance brochure; 1992 address in Laurel, Maryland, to city and county officials; Americans with Disabilities Act
Author:Schulte, Linda L.S.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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