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Happy 30th Birthday, ADA. What’s Next?

We need a system where people with disabilities are universally included by design—not “accommodation.”

Universal design includes disabled people as equal members of society and paves the way for a day when disabled people can be appreciated for their unique talents. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Universal design includes disabled people as equal members of society and paves the way for a day when disabled people can be appreciated for their unique talents. (Photo: Shutterstock)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) celebrated its 30th birthday this July. Three decades ago, the ADA represented a huge step forward for the rights of people with disabilities. In 2020, I think it’s time to advance even further.

The ADA offers people with disabilities the right to "reasonable accommodation" so long as it does not pose an "undue burden" to their school or employer.

People with disabilities do not automatically get accommodations. They first need to get diagnosed with a disability by a medical professional (which requires access to health care), and then they need to seek out accommodations.

I had migraines every day for a decade before I sought any accommodations at school, something I’ve since learned is common.

Now I teach college, and every semester I have students who qualify for accommodations but don’t know it. I wonder how many more students would qualify for accommodations but have never been diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD, or anxiety because they have never been assessed for it.

Some people don’t want a diagnosis of a disorder that carries stigma, while others may not have access to a health professional. In either case, they never receive the accommodations they are entitled to.

What’s more, the ADA leaves a lot of power in the hands of schools or employers. It’s essentially up to them to decide what constitutes a “reasonable” accommodation and what is an “undue burden.”

I don’t expect the world to revolve around me, but I get frustrated when an institution won’t accommodate me in relatively simple ways. It can make those of us with disabilities feel like society just wants to throw us away because we might cause someone a slight inconvenience.

But what if the burden wasn’t on people with disabilities to seek these accommodations out?

Instead of designing systems for able-bodied people and offering “accommodations” for the disabled, I prefer universal design: designing systems that are accessible for everybody. That way, nobody is left out, and nobody is “othered” or stigmatized.

Before the pandemic, fighting to convince someone to allow me to attend class or meetings remotely was exhausting. Now that most white-collar workplaces have built remote work into their standard operating procedures, I no longer have to fight. We’re all doing it.

People with disabilities are often defined by what we can’t do—a tendency the "accommodation" system reinforces. But when systems are designed that allow us to participate alongside everyone else, we can also appreciate that there are things disabled people can do that able-bodied people often cannot.

For example, my disability gives me a unique vantage point in society that I can bring to my field, sociology. It makes me a better social scientist and a better teacher because it allows me to empathize with other people with disabilities.

When I’m teaching, sometimes minimal effort from me can make the difference between a disabled student passing or failing that class. Teachers who haven’t lived that themselves may not always realize when students need that kind of outreach.

I know exactly how it feels to live in a society that was not designed for me. My disability helps me be more inclusive to others, and more empathic.

I’ve relied on the ADA a lot in my career and my education. I’m so grateful for it. But by continuing to design systems for people without disabilities and then placing the onus on them to request accommodations, we continue to see disabled people only as a burden on society.

Universal design includes disabled people as equal members of society and paves the way for a day when disabled people can be appreciated for their unique talents.

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