Two big anniversaries were in the news over the weekend. It was the 24th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And it’s been 30 years since Prince’s “Purple Rain” opened in theaters.
Only one of those milestones made me feel really old.
Maybe that’s because unlike a certain diminutive, velvet-clad pop star, the ADA is not yet ready for a nostalgia tour. It’s still very much a part of day-to-day life in America — in the courts, in Congress and in the private lives of citizens.
It’s been a very significant part of Aaron Cannon’s life over the past nine years. That’s how long Cannon has been fighting a legal battle aimed at pursuing his dream of becoming a chiropractor. Last month, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a chiropractic college in Davenport could not refuse admission to Cannon merely because he happens to be blind.
The court ordered Palmer College of Chiropractic to make reasonable accommodations to allow blind students to pursue a degree. It rejected Palmer’s argument that chiropractors had to be able to see to read X-rays, rather than relying on an assistant.
In the past nine years, Cannon had to pursue a different occupation. He attended the University of Iowa, became a software engineer specializing in web accessibility, living in Bloomfield Minn. Now 34 years old and married with four children, he hasn’t entirely shelved his dream of becoming a chiropractor someday, but says it’s not in his immediate plans.
Nine years is too long to put a life on hold. Even so, Cannon believes the ADA worked for him and particularly for blind students who may come after him. He said the ruling provided what he was seeking all along — the chance to try for a degree. “Not a free pass, or a free degree — simply to have the opportunity to stand or fall based on abilities.”
When I’ve mentioned this ruling to other people, they are incredulous. How can a blind person possibly work as a chiropractor? Does this mean they can also be surgeons, or as I heard one person suggest on the radio, an air-traffic controller?
Cannon says not all blind people are equal in abilities. He can do things some can’t, and others have skills beyond his own. There are still limitations on what blind people can do, he says, but technology is removing those limitations far faster than most people realize. “I suspect that the public’s view of what we can and can’t do is far behind the reality of that,” he said.
Cannon says in his case, and probably in many other ADA cases, the failure to imagine what might be a reasonable accommodation for a blind chiropractic student was compounded by a failure to make an effort to find out. That’s not a flaw with the ADA so much as a need for education for the public.
There are still many unnecessary barriers in American society for people who have physical or intellectual disabilities. The lack of job opportunities — jobs that pay a living wage, not just make-work positions in shelter workshops — is at the top of the list.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Ia., the author of the ADA, emphasized the need for better job opportunities during an ADA anniversary forum last week at Drake University. Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, also attended and agreed, pointing to Iowa employers’ reports of the high reliability and productivity of workers with disabilities.
Disability rights advocates and others at the forum also pointed out that more needs to be done regarding transportation and an “outdated benefits system” that provides disincentives for employment. Even movie theaters are getting attention: The Department of Justice last week proposed a new rule requiring not only closed-captioning for hearing-impaired people but also an audio narration of key visual elements in a movie such as action, expressions or costumes for those who can’t see them.
While the ADA continues to evolve in American society, Harkin is trying to expand disability rights through an international treaty, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Based largely on the ADA, the United Nations treaty has been ratified by 138 countries so far. The treaty, backed by veterans groups but opposed by home school advocates and other conservatives, failed in 2012. It is expected to become eligible for Senate debate this week, and Harkin is urging leaders to bring it to the floor.
Pop-star Prince, at age 56, isn’t topping the charts these days, but the Americans with Disabilities Act is still a long way from reaching its full potential.