By Sarah Morayati
Published: July 18, 2010
Americans with Disabilities Act turns 20
The Americans with Disabilities Act became law 20 years ago this month. Its rules prohibiting discrimination and ensuring equal opportunity for people with disabilities focus on four key areas.
- ACCESSIBILITY: All new buildings and facilities must be accessible to people with disabilities, with such additions as curb cuts, ramps and accessible parking.
- COMMUNICATION: Accommodations must be available for people with disabilities, such as closed captioning, interpreters or readers.
- EMPLOYMENT: Discrimination in recruitment, hiring, promotion, training or pay for people with disabilities is illegal. Employers cannot ask about disability in the hiring process, and they must make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities who are hired.
- TRANSPORTATION: Public transportation, such as buses and trains, must be accessible for people with disabilities.
Michael Murray witnessed firsthand how the Americans with Disabilities Act could change a life.
Murray grew up and attended school in Greensboro in the years after the ADA’s passage. In the second grade, he was given a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, commonly known as ADHD, and told that he had a learning disability involving reading and writing. And his father, Wes, had his own disability — chronic fatigue syndrome.
“Growing up, disability was a very natural thing to me,” Murray said. “It had its struggles, but it also had real successes.”
Thanks to the ADA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, he was able to get an individualized education plan during school, which allowed him such accommodations as extra time on tests. Not all his teachers, however, were receptive.
He recalled that during the third grade he and his father met with teachers and professionals, who told them that it would be best if Murray went to a special school because he would never learn to read.
His father, normally mild-mannered, stood up and gave an ultimatum: “I’ll teach him to read in one year.” They practiced after school, in the car and at work, and Murray did learn to read that year.
Later, during a meeting in 11th grade, a psychologist asked Murray what his goals were. He said he wanted to go to college to help others with disabilities; the psychologist told him he should focus on “more realistic” goals.
“What kills me to this day is that none of the teachers spoke up,” Murray said. “A professional had said it wasn’t possible, so to them it wasn’t.”
Murray’s disability is not visible, which contributed in some part to the reaction. He said that many people with “invisible disabilities” have a harder time convincing people of their rights.
Murray said that one of his high-school gym teachers gave a test in which he took away the spell-checker Murray used.
“If I had showed up in a wheelchair, he wouldn’t take away my wheelchair and say, ‘OK, go run a mile. The only reason you can’t walk is because nobody ever took away your wheelchair,'” Murray said.
Murray later attended UNC Greensboro and studied special education. He now works as an outreach coordinator for the Disability Rights North Carolina, a nonprofit law firm that represents people with disabilities in legal cases.
People who visit the firm tell him about attitudes they have experienced much like his own. Some, he said, share stories about being placed into institutions, others of buildings and environments that still aren’t accessible.
Although Murray admires the language of the ADA, he said that in order for it to fully take effect, the culture must change: People with disabilities need to see themselves as valuable, and others need to see them as people, not as disabilities.
“We’re not objects of pity,” Murray said. “We are something beautiful that’s added to society.”