Man in wheelchair with dog going up a ramp with headline: Equal opportunity begins with access

The American Disability Act (ADA) turns 31 on July 26, 2021. The groundbreaking law codified this simple truth: people with disabilities are entitled to human rights.

This may seem obvious in writing, but an honest evaluation of our environment makes it clear that many of the buildings and services we use are not equitably accessible.

For example, do all websites integrate technology that enables visually impaired, hard of hearing, and deaf people to access content?

Do all playgrounds contain structures that children with disabilities can enjoy?

Do all educational institutions accommodate students who have learning disabilities?

Are restaurant interiors designed with enough space between tables for people in wheelchairs to move around comfortably?

Is everyone on staff trained to treat people with disabilities respectfully?

Thanks to the ADA, there is a legal mandate that public and private entities dismantle the systemic ableism keeping people with disabilities on the margins.

That’s worth celebrating – especially in the cannabis community, where many consumers use cannabis for their physical or mental health impairments.

But National Disability Independence Day is also a time to imagine and work toward an even more equitable future for people with disabilities, especially those who hold multiple marginalized identities.

How Does the ADA Protect People with Disabilities?

Before the ADA, hiring managers regularly discriminated against job candidates with disabilities. Business establishments had no legal requirement to create accessible spaces and services, so they didn’t. Students with disabilities were kicked out of school, underserved, and left behind.

The ADA arrested those harmful practices.

Thanks to the ADA, buildings must be designed with wheelchair ramps, public transportation must be accessible to wheelchair users, employers cannot ask job candidates and employees if they have a disability, and schools must accommodate all types of learners.

Put simply, people with disabilities have rights, and those rights are protected by the law.

There is no comprehensive list of the physical and mental disabilities covered under the ADA. However, the law offers the following disabilities as examples of the type of physiological and cognitive impairments that qualify for ADA protection:

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Diabetes
  • Drug addiction
  • Epilepsy
  • Heart disease
  • HIV
  • Mental retardation
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Orthopedic, speech, and hearing impairments
  • Specific learning disabilities
  • Visual impairments

The ADA prevents people with disabilities from being discriminated against in the following areas of public life:

  • Employment (Title I) – The ADA requires employers with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities.
  • Publicly funded services (Title II) – State and local governments must implement architectural and communication changes to make publicly funded programs accessible to everyone.
  • Private entities (Title III) – Private businesses must make reasonable modifications to ensure accessible communication and service to their patrons.
  • Telecommunications (Title IV) – The ADA mandates internet and telephone companies to make their services accessible to people with hearing and speech disabilities.

These ADA-mandated protections make it easier for people with disabilities to participate in society and add value to their places of work and communities. However, the law is imperfect. People with disabilities are still more likely to be unemployed and under-resourced than people without disabilities.

How Does the ADA Fall Short?

Many qualifying medical conditions for state-regulated medical marijuana programs are also covered by the ADA.

However, the ADA won’t protect medical marijuana patients until cannabis is legalized at the federal level, a frustrating but court-tested obstacle. In multiple cases, the court sided with the employer against employees who were terminated for cannabis use. In these cases, the employees were registered medical marijuana users.

Beyond its cannabis exclusions, the ADA faces the same issues that all American laws face: bias. Despite improving the lives of many people with disabilities, the ADA disproportionately neglects marginalized groups because of structural bias.

Take these examples:

  • Black students with disabilities are 1.5 times more likely to drop out of school than white students with disabilities.
  • Adults who are lesbian, gay, and bisexual have higher rates of disability, but disability prevention and intervention efforts targeted at the LGBTQ+ community are lacking.
  • Mothers with disabilities are more likely to be unjustly separated from their children.
  • People who are socioeconomically disadvantaged face added financial barriers to healthcare and legal representation.
  • People with disabilities who depend on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid benefits risk losing that support if they marry someone with a disqualifying income.

These examples illustrate the importance of intersectionality awareness in the fight for civil rights – including disability rights. Having a disability is one layer. Having a disability as a Black lesbian adds several other layers the ADA doesn’t address.

The reality is that the ADA is legislation, not a magic wand. People must implement its requirements for it to work. When that doesn’t happen, others must report the problem and demand change, keeping targeted marginalized groups at the center of all advocacy efforts.

Our Society, Our Responsibility

In 1986, the NCD wrote this striking statement:

“People with disabilities have been saying for years that their major obstacles are not inherent in their disabilities but arise from barriers that have been imposed externally and unnecessarily.”

Having a disability is an everyday, natural experience shared by a large segment of the global population:

  • 1 in 4 adults have a disability
  • 2 in 5 adults aged 65 and older have a disability
  • 1 in 4 women have a disability
  • 2 in 5 non-Hispanic American Indians/Alaska Natives have a disability

Anyone can acquire a disability at any point in their life. The ADA puts legal pressure on society to accept that and create environments in which people with disabilities can still thrive.

But there’s more work to be done, and it’s imperative that all people – regardless of their physical and mental abilities – recognize the importance of doing it.

Everyone has a part to play. As an employee, a consumer, an employer, an executive, a founder, or a caring member of your community, you have the power to document accessibility issues and report them to people with decision-making power.

We all have a responsibility to tear down the unnecessary external barriers standing in the way of fair access. Whether we have the resources to demolish an entire wall or simply remove one brick at a time, National Disability Independence Day is a time to reflect on the power each of us has to make our communities safer, fairer, and more accessible for everyone.