In my 40-year career working on disability friendly access in higher education, local governments, and the nonprofit world, I have seen over and over again that the built environment must change so that all people can fully participate in every aspect of life.
Prior to the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, physical barriers prevented many people with disabilities from working, obtaining an education, voting, getting health care, and even going to the post office or out to eat.
But with the ADA’s passage, our nation embraced the national public policy that our built environment should be designed and constructed to accommodate the 20% of our population who have disabilities.
Over the last 30 years, our built environment has become more accessible to everyone, with features such as curb ramp cuts, wider doors, larger bathroom stalls, captioned TV, movies and internet, and buses that announce stops for blind passengers. Thanks to these improvements, the disability community can get out and spend money, build a social network, apply for jobs, visit the doctor, and run for public office!
Locally, over the last eight years, I have been thrilled to see Colorado Springs, El Paso County, and others in the Pikes Peak region begin to embrace the concept that communities are richer and more diverse if we include all residents. Colorado Springs has always made it a priority to support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities; but now our public entities are really thinking through how to include people who are blind or low vision, d/Deaf or hard of hearing, have a mobility disability, or are living with mental health concerns. Adams Crossing (formerly “no man’s land”), the Pikes Peak Summit House, the new Olympic museum, and even the Mill Street Neighborhood Plan all tout ADA/disability friendly design as one of their goals.
Without the ADA, this national and local sea change never would have happened.
Now, we are moving on to the second phase of disability friendly society: changing the attitudes of people who are not currently living with a disability. (I say “currently” because the disability community is the only minority group anyone can join at any time.)
Of course, changing attitudes is the harder part of this endeavor. Humans seem to be hardwired to be fearful of anything or anyone different from themselves or what they were taught as kids.
And until very recently, people with disabilities were often stereotyped as dangerous, someone to be pitied, or not worthy of resources that could be put to a “better” use. But as it turns out, changing attitudes is also a side effect of the ADA. The more we interact with people who are unlike ourselves, the more accepting we become.
You can see the proof of this in how many employers are starting to become more open to hiring people with disabilities. According to data cited on the Society for Human Resource Management website, Americans with disabilities have improved their employment rate month over month for 21 consecutive months.
In our community, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities dropped from 10.5% in 2016 to 9.2% in 2017. I can’t wait to see how far that rate has dropped in 2019!
Only by getting to know people with disabilities as friends, co-workers, neighbors, and partners can attitudes change. And it all starts with a built environment that is disability friendly.
While you cannot legislate attitude change, a good law can sure kick-start something that benefits all of us over the course of our lives.
Patricia Yeager, Ph.D., is the CEO of The Independence Center.