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Americans with Disabilities Act changed lives, but advocates say there’s still a ways to go

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Melody Cooper remembers how it felt to learn the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in 1990.

“It made me feel good,” said Cooper, who has cerebral palsy. “… I was relieved for all people with disabilities.”

The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. Unlike the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which provided some protections for people with disabilities, the ADA requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities and mandates accessibility requirements for public accommodations. The ADA was signed into law July 26, which is now commemorated with National Disability Independence Day.

Cooper, 50, is now a self-advocate specialist at The ARC of Indiana, an organization that helps people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Cooper said she was diagnosed when she was 2 years old and grew up with children who didn’t want to interact with her. She ate lunch by herself at school.

Cooper said one thing that’s changed since 1990 — which also happens to be the year she moved to Indianapolis — is that people with disabilities have more resources now. Organizations such as The ARC of Indiana can help people with disabilities live independent lives where any physical or intellectual impairment doesn’t have to be front and center all the time.

Kim Dodson, executive director at The ARC of Indiana, said if she could rate from one to 10 where society is when it comes to being mindful and accommodating of people with disabilities, she would give a six. She said people are making more of an effort to pay attention to what they say and do, “but so many people just walk up to the minimum of what’s required by the ADA and don’t really think about how it actually works.”

It’s good that businesses seem to be thinking more about making their buildings accessible to people with disabilities, Dodson said, but it’s more important that those people actually feel included. She added that the golden rule — treating others the way you would want to be treated — isn’t exactly right here. She said the goal should actually be to treat someone the way they want to be treated, and sometimes that means simply asking.

Patrick Sandy, president and CEO of Easter Seals Crossroads, another organization that helps people with disabilities, was an advocate in West Lafayette in 1990. He said he sent letters to his representatives asking them to pass the ADA and that when it finally happened, there was a noticeable shift in morale for everyone who would benefit.

“I think people felt like, ‘OK, this is an opportunity for us to access and participate in our community like any other community member,’” Sandy said.

Sandy said society has made “huge progress” since 1990, but he would like to see more advancements in technology to help people with disabilities and wants more companies to come up with ways to be inclusive.

One consequence of living with a disability that may not be immediately obvious is the risk of domestic violence and abuse. This is especially true for those living with an intellectual disability. Kelsey Cowley, a self-advocate specialist who does private contract work with the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence (ICADV), said people with an intellectual disability are abused and sexually exploited more than people without a disability.

Cowley — who has Asperger Syndrome, PTSD, anxiety and a learning disability — has been in abusive relationships and said people with intellectual disabilities are especially vulnerable because “they don’t know how to defend themselves. They haven’t had the proper sexuality training that people get in schools.”

Cierra Thomas-Williams, a prevention specialist at ICADV, said some crisis shelters may be off limits to people with disabilities because the building isn’t accessible or the staff doesn’t know enough about non-verbal communication to be helpful.

“When we create the conditions where everyone is included,” she said, “… then we are creating a context and system where every human being can survive.”

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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