Obama's top disability adviser on ADA's 20th anniversary

Monday, July 26, 2010; A11

Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, a far-reaching measure that enacted a series of changes improving public access for people with disabilities and protecting them from discrimination.

Kareem Dale is associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and a special assistant to President Obama on disability policy, the first such adviser. He is legally blind and uses a cane when he walks.

Dale, a graduate of the University of Illinois law school, met Obama in 1998 when he invited the then-state senator to speak to the school's Black Law Students Association. He joined Obama's presidential campaign in 2008 as an adviser on disability policy. He spoke on Friday about the law's impact on federal policy and the general public.

Q How has ADA helped disabled Americans in the past 20 years?

I think people are very happy with the progress. You have curb cuts now. I'm a beneficiary of the Braille you see on hotel room doors and elevators. There's better accessible transportation, wheelchair-accessible buses and reasonable accommodations that employers had to provide.

It's been a sea change in 20 years, but we're not done. One of the areas, for example, is when you look at technology. When ADA was passed in 1990, the Web wasn't what it is now and technology wasn't what it is now. The ADA and the law have to pick up with technology.

Give me an example of how ADA should apply better to technology.

Well, the simplest questions would be, does ADA apply to Web sites? Many courts have said no and maybe a couple have said yes, but it's been an open question. Our Department of Justice just announced [on Friday] that they plan to issue some proposed rulemaking about ADA applying to Web sites.

Has ADA helped Americans better understand the plight of people with disabilities?

I think it has. I don't think you have a law like the ADA and see changes like a blind governor in New York [David A. Paterson] -- you don't have those things without public awareness not changing.

Is it where it needs to be? Probably not, but that's one of the things the president is trying to do, is say, 'Look, I have people with disabilities working for my administration.' So he's trying to lead by example.

What are the Obama administration's top goals when it comes to disability policy?

I think the top goals don't differ too much from what the president is trying to accomplish for Americans at large. Health care: Eliminating preexisting conditions and caps -- that was huge. We're talking about education reform now; that's critical to people with disabilities. . . . Employment and jobs is obviously a very, very big thing with our economy right now. . . . Our goal is to help level the playing field with disabilities to ensure that everyone has an opportunity.

How has the private sector done with integrating disabled people into the workforce?

I think advocates would say it's not much different than what I've said: That there's been progress. There are private-sector companies doing great things, whether it's with employment or technology, but we need to do more. The employment rate for disabled people is five percentage points lower than it is for people without disabilities, so we need to do better, just like we need to do better in the government.

And what's the government's employment rate of disabled people?

In the government, just over 5 percent of people have disabilities and less than 1 percent are people with targeted disabilities. (People with targeted disabilities are deaf, blind, mentally retarded or missing extremities, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.)

So how do you keep the issues of disabled Americans at the forefront beyond Monday's anniversary?

I think what we're trying to do is to integrate disability into all of what we do. . . . As an example, when we created our Office of Olympic, Paralympic and Youth Sport, we included paralympics and people with disabilities in that office so it wasn't something you had to add on afterwards. . . . We seek to include people with disabilities from the beginning, from the ground, so it's fully integrated, and that's really our focus and how we keep it front and center.

-- Interview by Ed O'Keefe

Monday at washingtonpost.com {vbar} Join Andrew J. Imparato, president and chief executive of the American Association of People with Disabilities, for a live discussion of the 20th anniversary of ADA at 12:15 p.m.

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