As we prepare turn the page on 2015, and embark on a new year ahead, 2016 gives us an opportunity to shape a more inclusive future for Americans with disabilities.
The disability community reached a number of notable milestones in 2015. First and foremost, we celebrated the silver anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. For a quarter of a century, the ADA has helped provided a solid foundation for creating more inclusive communities. While doing so, the rest of society has had over two decades to discover what people with disabilities can achieve if given a fair shake and equal consideration.
Despite considerable opposition, misinterpretation and, at times, blatant disregard for both the intention behind, and implementation of, the ADA, the ideals and values that fortify the legislation have assisted millions of people with disabilities in rising up against and eliminating barriers in all areas of society--from the workplace to access to housing, public transportation and technological innovation.
But even a landmark civil rights law cannot transform out-of-date attitudes and the discrimination borne of them. Changing the ways people think about disability requires continual education and increased exposure to people with lived experiences.
There is no area where this truth has been more evident in last year than in national conversations about the need for mental health reform and the unfortunate prevalence of perpetuated myths about psychiatric disability. NCD continues to hear from many people with mental illness and their supporters, as we did at our latest board meeting. They spoke eloquently about their disheartening experiences with fears, myths, and stereotypes, as well as the liberating experience of finding supportive peer communities to aid them in their journeys toward recovery. Unfortunately, policymakers and pundits alike have seized on the recent outbreak of mass shootings to call for mental health reform, implying that there is a distinct population of people – people with mental disabilities – as a “they” – who lawmakers can legislate into isolation in order to supposedly protect the rest of “us.” Those erroneous positions propel a harmful misconception that NCD stakeholders, staff, and board members have worked tirelessly, sometimes for decades, to dismantle. Clearly, this work will continue with renewed vigor and attention in 2016.
Despite having had a need to monitor these types of policy efforts closely for their potential for mischief, there are also areas of genuine progress and enthusiasm. For the third consecutive year, the U.S. Department of Education reported in December 2015 that the graduation rate for students with disabilities continued to rise, reaching 63.1 percent for the 2013–2014 academic year. Although these rates are still too low, the fact that the rate continues to improve year over year is nonetheless laudable.
As we move into the future, many of the walls which separate Americans – and, indeed, persons with disabilities from their nondisabled peers – are barriers for lack of knowledge or imagination rather than obstruction by brick and mortar. New technologies are increasing both the independence and productivity of Americans, including Americans with disabilities. Yet, advances in technology alone cannot guarantee a person’s quality of life will improve, and sometimes the advances in technology are forged without considering access at the front-end.
In 2016, NCD’s annual Progress Report will examine a variety of topics affecting people with disabilities vis-à-vis technology, with the central theme of how Americans with disabilities are faring in this new digital media age, and what promising practices exist at the federal, state, and local levels to assist people with disabilities in reaping the same benefits of emerging technologies as their nondisabled peers – not as a privilege, or as a “special” need, but rather, as a civil right.
Finally, thinking ahead to 2016, millions of Americans will once again venture to their local polling places to vote in their local primaries and in the general election next November. During the last Presidential election cycle in 2012, 1 in 5 voters with disabilities reported that they were kept from casting their ballot privately and independently, and more than half said they encountered hurdles — including rude or condescending attitudes from election workers — inside their polling place. It’s been nearly 4 years since those experiences. How will Americans with disabilities, including new voters with disabilities just coming of age, fare? If the past is any indication, diligence and careful attention to applicable laws and typical access concerns will be essential.
Looking back as well as ahead, NCD takes stock of the many voices of stakeholders we have heard from in 2015, often offering starkly different perspectives than new or proposed policies. We remain committed in the New Year to offer plentiful opportunities for stakeholder involvement so that our own policy recommendations can best reflect the lived experiences and needs of disabled Americans. We encourage Americans with disabilities to provide public comments either in person at one of our quarterly meetings or via email at any time.
Happy New Year to you and yours!