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Reflections on the struggle for ADA and the task ahead.

When I think back on the struggle for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the image I most recall is of a march in darkness and rain one special night in Washington, DC. What struck me as unusual was the fact that such a large number of us were experiencing this kind of a march for the first time. Marches occur quite frequently in this city, but a number of us who participated in this one wondered whether the tactic might be too aggressive. And even though most of us worked in independent live centers, many of us had never been involved in anything even as mildly confrontational as this first march.

For me the thrill was not the march itself, for I had participated in many marches before. The power of the moment was in witnessing empowerment at its best. As we finished this march we were already looking forward to the next one.

This memory will not leave me because it illustrates the greatest impact ADA has had on the independent living movement: It rejuvenated us, it brought us back to our roots. People who work in independent living centers are acutely aware of the irony that has accompanied our tremendous growth as a movement in the 1980's. As our numbers and political power have increased, so have our funding needs. What has not increased is the number of hours in a day; and the most common criticism of independent living centers is that we spend more and more of those hours chasing money and less and less providing the hard-nosed, grass roots advocacy that empowered us in the first place and that people with disabilities still sorely need.

The same argument holds that the more we have developed funding resources, the more we have become beholden, at least in our own minds, to external forces apart from our mission. Many centers have been less likely to become involved in a controversy for fear of stepping on the toes of a vital benefactor.

The realities of survival notwithstanding, this criticism is right on target. ADA gave us something about which we felt strongly enough to fight for, no matter what. We came together to organize much of the grass roots impetus that was an indispensable component of the strategy for ADA's passage. We won and the sky did not fall. Funders did not abandon us in droves. In fact, many joined us!

The challenge now is to retain our momentum through the regulatory development process and to remain as fearless in asserting our new power as we were in obtaining it. We cannot let our old fears and apprehensions cause us to lose direction again. In pursuing the financial opportunities that will come from providing training and technical assistance around ADA, we must avoid the pitfalls that could conceivably find us on opposite sides than those we are supposed to serve. Our philosophical discussions on how to move forward with ADA need to begin soon. We have to be proctive. We have to develop a client-oriented context within which we will constantly re-examine our plans. With each undertaking, we must always ask ourselves, "Is the consumer our primary focus?" This will keep us on track.

This past New Year's Day my husband and I planned to dine at a favorite seafood restaurant, but as we arrived we were shocked and infuriated to see that the entrance which had always been perfectly accessible now was encumbered by a large step. This is not supposed to happen in Illinois. It is a violation of a tough state law called the Environmental Barriers Act (EBA). But the owner was still able to acquire the necessary permits because city inspectors either did not know or did not care about EBA. Either way, EBA was apparently an extremely low priority.

It was clear to me that the same thing could happen with ADA unless we maintain constant vigilance. The best defense will be to have monitoring systems in place that are sophisticated enough to catch violations before they can occur. Failing that, independent living centers have to be prepared to do what is necessary to ensure vigorous enforcement and prosecution.

Even then, vague ADA concepts like "ready achievable" and "undue hardship" are wide open to interpretation. We all know how disastrous court interpretations have often been reflected in disability rights and other civil rights decisions. The question that occurred to me as I encountered this new and blatantly illegal barrier was, "Will we have the power to make matters of interpretation cut in our direction?"

Much of this question will be answered in ADA's regulations and that is why continuing escalation of our mobilization in this stage is the first and most important challenge. We have all seen plenty of frustrating examples of how tough laws can be completely eviscerated by vague and/or weak regulations. Our battle to obtain regulations for the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, years after their deadline for issuance, shows us how timeliness in putting forth regulations is just as important as fairness and just as damaging when it is denied.

So the same urgency that stirred us from our advocacy hibernation to pass ADA should prod us even more here in phase II. We cannot expect to clear this hurdle without swift response from an intricate consumer infrastructure any more than we could have expected to pass ADA without it. That infrastructure must be built and maintained by independent living centers.

Yet, the very nature of regulatory development threatens the cohesiveness wherein the power of our coalition lies. With so many regulations coming from so many regulations coming from so many places, it is easy to become diffused by going off in different directions to put out political brush-fires. To proceed successfully to the next step it is imperative to not only reaffirm our own commitment but to keep generating more energy from more people. This is not the time to neglect good, basic organizing.

Once regulations are settled, independent living centers are bound to find financial opportunities in providing technical assistance around ADA, especially to the business community. This, too, needs to be approached with caution. In Chicago, our funders in the business community often rely on us for advice on accessibility. This surely will become more prevalent all over the country as regulations make the laws more complex.

But suppose, for example, we interpret what is readily achievable for that business one way and advise them of their responsibilities accordingly and an individual with a disability interprets it in a much more strict way. What if that person takes action and asks for our support? Suddenly, we find ourselves facing the same pressures that scared too many of us away from advocacy before.

This is not to say that independent living centers should stay away from being consultants on the finer points of ADA. Upholding the true spirit of ADA demands that we do get involved, since we are the experts. But now is the time for us to painstakingly think this whole thing through, acknowledge the inherent traps and develop policies to keep them from swallowing us up. If we just grab the money and ask questions later, the biggest loser will be the integrity and power of ADA and people with disabilities.

It will be up to independent living centers to lead the way in public and consumer education, compliance monitoring and enforcement around ADA. It will be equally important to maintain our consumer focus to be as effective as we have to be in these respects. Most of our clients are as likely as those in the business community to need our guidance in sorting it all out. This cannot be just passive lecturing. The goal of consumer education programs has to be not just clarifying ADA in the minds of those we serve but inspiring them to do what they need to do to make it work for them.

Consumer education also cannot be passive in that we supply if for those who come to us in search of it. There has to be aggressive outreach. We will need to actively recruit and create new ADA experts in our communities. Compliance monitoring will be an especially daunting task for which we will need all the help we can get.

The restaurant example shows the indispensable importance of compliance monitoring. Violations, deliberate and otherwise, will occur. Violators who claim the defense of benevolent ignorance will probably find a court system willing to let them slide in the name of cost. Those communities that can stop these violations before they happen, through the use of tenacious watchdogs, will be the most successful. The more volunteers there are willing and able to do this, the more ironclad it will be.

Neglect of monitoring will only create greater advocacy pressures in that it will mean more involvement in enforcement and lawsuits. But even the most dedicated watchdog network will have pores and a great many communities will find it necessary to fully exert our power under ADA. History shows us that the most common result of such lawsuits is compliance and/or negotiation, rather than protracted litigation. But, again, the irony is that the less ready we are to push ADA all the way, the more likely we will be forced to.

Let us consider a utopian scenario where ADA's regulations are fair, compliance is rampant and all the enforcement mechanisms work with little or no outside prodding. We would still find endless projects for our advocacy structures in the quality of life issues that are beyond the breadth of ADA.

With ADA's passage, we won the battle for basic civil rights on paper. It brought us through the door. Marginalized people have learned throughout history that declarations are not enough. No one, for example, thinks ADA is going to magically erase the 60 percent unemployment rate among people with disabilities. This will take time and can only come through assertiveness and persistence. Even then, there are still formidable obstructions that socially immobilize the most dedicated, motivated people with disabilities. In-home care is the most graphic example. We all know you have to get out of bed before you can go to a job interview or do anything else in a day.

Not every independent living center will be faced with all these tasks. But it is a good bet that all of us will be faced with some. We need to anticipate them all because any actions we take, or do not take, need to come from a rationale that puts the consumer first. ADA will be as effective as its continued grass roots support, and independent living centers will be the major source of that support. Our mobilization to pass ADA proves that we have not lost our organizing touch. That invigorating realization needs to motivate us to greater heights. This, not our laurels, will be the most enduring tribute to our ability to change the course of history.

Let us not retreat into the comfortable, convenient mind set that says we cannot have our cake and eat it too. What is the sense of having a cake if we are not going to eat it?

We have wedged our way into the world and earned the right to be spectators. It makes no sense to stop until we have become valued as key participants.

Ms. Bristo is President, Access Living, 310 S. Peoria, Chicago, Illinois, 60607.
COPYRIGHT 1990 U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration
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Title Annotation:Americans with Disabilities Act
Author:Bristo, Marca
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Date:Dec 22, 1990
Words:1914
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