Saturday is the 24th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The law requires public accommodations be made for people with disabilities and prohibits employment discrimination.
St. Louis has been on the forefront of disability advocacy since the 1970s, led by Paraquad founders Max and Colleen Starkloff. Through the efforts of Paraquad and the Starkloffs, St. Louis became the first city in the country to have lift-equipped buses. Members of Paraquad also traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the passage of the ADA.
David Newburger was a board member at Paraquad when the ADA passed. He said the legislation changed the conversation on disability rights.
“When you’re talking to somebody about fixing a problem, it moves from it’s a nice thing to do -- it's nice to help these poor disabled people -- to the law says you have to do it. So, it makes a major difference in your advocacy,” said Newburger.
The most complete and visible effect of the ADA was that it made the outside world accessible to people with physical disabilities like himself, said Newburger.
“I mean, everything is different. It used to be, before we had curb ramps in the city of St. Louis, that the way those of us who were using wheelchairs would get across the street would be that we’d go find the alley and we’d jaywalk from the alley drive to the alley drive. And if there wasn’t an alley there, then that was a block that we weren’t going to get on,” he said.
Newburger, who is now co-director of the Starkloff Disability Institute and the Commissioner on the Disabled for the city of St. Louis, has had limited mobility since he contracted polio as a child.
He said the ADA has also made the public more aware that people with disabilities are just people. For example, waiters at restaurants used to ask his dinner companions what he wanted to eat. Now, waiters ask him directly for his order.
But, he said, the goal of the ADA is to create a world where people with disabilities are full participants in their community. And that involves the difficult process of changing perceptions.
“Nobody particularly hates a person with a disability. But a person assumes a person with a disability can’t do this or that, and that excludes them from participating in society,” said Newburger.
Newburger said exclusion of people with disabilities is especially notable with employment. Employers assume people with disabilities can’t do the work, so they are less likely to hire them.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 80 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities don’t have a job.
Lack of a job means people with disabilities cannot be economically independent. That holds true in St. Louis, where census data show that working-age people with disabilities are twice as likely to live below the poverty line.
Helping St. Louisans with disabilities find employment is one of the main focuses of the Starkloff Disability Institute, which has created the Next Step program to train employers about accessibility and create a catalog of people with disabilities looking for jobs.
Employment is also a focus of Paraquad, which has launched Accessible STL to address the problem.
Out of all minority groups, people with disabilities have the highest rate of unemployment, said Paraquad staff attorney Kimberly Lackey.
“That’s something people are becoming more aware of, and employers are trying to reach out more to individuals with disabilities and have better hiring practices in that sense. But there is still a long way to go,” she said.
Part of the problem is that employers have misconceptions about what it takes to hire people with disabilities, said Lackey. They think it will cost them money, for example. But, she said, research shows there are more benefits than drawbacks.
“Employees with disabilities have a much higher attendance rate, they are much more reliable employees than others, and they really contribute to the diversity and effectiveness of employment,” said Lackey.
Another aspect to the employment discrepancy is that 24 years isn’t that long in the lifespan of an executive, said Newburger.
He explained that employers that grew up in the wake of the Civil Rights Act are used to treating everybody the same in order to avoid discrimination.
“Everybody comes to work at eight, everybody leaves at five,” said Newburger. “So you know a favored citizen doesn’t get any benefits that an unfavored citizen wouldn’t get. So everything is the same. And I call that the inputs. It doesn’t measure how the quality of the outputs is. Then you come along and you have people with a disability, and you say they can’t do it the same way everybody else does it. They need adjustments in schedules; they need a variety of things in order to do the job. And what’s important is whether they perform, as the law says, the essential functions of the job.
“So now you’re telling people with 50 years of experience saying everybody does it the same way and that’s how you avoid discriminating, and now I’m telling them if you make everybody do it the same way you’re discriminating against a person with a disability,” he said. “There is a real mindset that has to change in society to catch that problem.”
As with stopping discrimination of other minority groups, preventing discrimination against people with disabilities is a slow process, said Newburger. But he has hope that as generations pass, making accommodations for people with disabilities will become instinctive.
After all, he said, most of the time interacting with people with disabilities comes down to respect and empathy.