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Americans with Disabilities Act Anniversary

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Andrew J. Imparato
President and CEO, American Association of People with Disabilities
Monday, July 26, 2010; 12:45 PM

Andrew J. Imparato, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, was online Monday, July 26, at 12:45 p.m. ET to discuss the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a wide-ranging civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990.

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Washington DC: Where has the ADA been most successful in achieving its goals and which area of the ADA is most in need of federal enforcement?

Andrew J. Imparato: I would say the greatest success has been around the built environment, and the telecommunications and transportation infrastructure for our country. We still have work to do in these areas and others, but the rate of progress has been pretty considerable when you consider how inaccessible our country was 20 years ago.

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Richmond, Virginia: What do you see as top priorities for the next generation of disability rights activists?

Andrew J. Imparato: I think the next generation of disability rights activists need to make using the web to reach more people and build a stronger, more cohesive voting bloc a significant priority. Every issue we care about, from accessible technology to fighting Medicaid cuts to enforcement of civil rights in the workplace, will be easier to accomplish if we get organized and make voter registration and voter mobilization a priority in every election.

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Burbank, CA.: What are any shortcomings you see in the Americans with Disabilities law and in how it is being implemented, and what actions do you believe are necessary to improve upon this law?

Andrew J. Imparato: I think the ADA was well-written, but at times it has been interpreted by the courts and federal enforcement agencies in a manner that sometimes undermines its effectiveness. For example, it should be a no-brainer that the ADA applies to the internet, but the courts are split on that issue. There are lots of issues like that that need clarification.

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Weeki Wachee Fl.: Why are people (George Will, Rand Paul) so against the ADA act? To someone that has a hard time getting around this has been a godsend. I'm able to be independent and not have to depend on others. And don't tell me cost. After the original outlay there is minimal expense.

Andrew J. Imparato: My hope is that Rand Paul is not against the ADA. If you look at what he has said, he seems to be operating from a misunderstanding of what the ADA requires. If all he is against is spending a lot of money on an elevator that is not necessary, then he is not against the ADA, he is just against something that the ADA does not require.

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Bethesda, MD: I wanted to say that the ADA changed the lives of Deaf people in many ways, most especially in access to education.

But one access problem the Deaf community has had in recent years, because of the internet, is that almost none of the streaming media on the web are either captioned or subtitled. And I'm not referring to YouTube submissions posted by private individuals, because nobody is expecting those things to be subtitled or captioned. I'm referring here to streaming video put out by major networks. Even most full-length feature movies which can be picked up at Blockbuster aren't captioned when they're rented/downloaded/streamed via Netflix or iTunes. The companies have really dropped the ball here. The technology is available, it's dirt cheap, and they still aren't doing it.

Andrew J. Imparato: Thank you for raising this important issue. At AAPD, we have been involved in organizing and leading the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology, www.coataccess.org, and we are working with that coalition to address the issue that you raised. We are excited that the House is poised to pass HR 3101, the 21st Century Telecommunications and Video Accessibility Act, later today, which is appropriate given that today is the 20th anniversary of the ADA's enactment.

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Washington, D.C.: Thank goodness for the ADA. However, taxis in Washington, DC don't stop for me or my friends whenever we have our service dogs with us (which is pretty much all the time). Complaints to the DC Taxi authority come up with chuckles and "he promised not to do it again." What can your organization do to help us?

Andrew J. Imparato: This is an issue that people on the AAPD staff have faced. Jim Dickson, our Vice President of Civic Engagement, is blind and uses a service dog and has had mixed experiences with cabs in DC. One time a reporter for the Washington Post saw how he was treated and wrote a story about it. We are happy to work with you to raise this issue with the appropriate authorities in the District. Jim's email is jdickson@aapd.com and mine is aimparato@aapd.com

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People with vision impairments: In general, I find that the ADA has made it much easier for people with physical disabilities -- wheelchair ramps, sidewalk cut-outs, etc. However, it's done very little for people with vision impairments. As society moves more and more online, people who are blind or have low-vision are left behind. They are finding increasingly difficult to do even the most basic tasks -- pay their bills, contact customer support, get government assistance, etc., all because companies are pushing everything online, without a way for the blind to use the internet. And 20 years after the ADA, money in the United States is still not readable by the blind. Will there be a push for the internet to become more blind-friendly in the future? Thanks.

Andrew J. Imparato: Thank you for raising this important issue. I do think that the buses that are ADA compliant are good for people with visual disabilities when they call out the stops, and there is a lot more braille on buttons than there was before the ADA, but I understand your concern. HR 3101, which is slotted to pass the House later today, will help, as would passage of the Pedestrian Safety bill that would make the quiet cars make more noise so blind people can hear them. We also have to do more to promote braille literacy. Anyway thank you for your question.

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Philadelphia, PA: What are your thoughts of the entrances to places when many entrances for people with disabiilties are still "separate but equal"?

Andrew J. Imparato: I think that we need new buildings to be universally designed so that disabled people can enter and have access to the structure following the same path of travel as everyone else. For existing facilities, I think the compromise struck in the ADA--requiring accessibility to be added where it is readily achievable or where there is a major renovation underway--was probably a fair compromise, but I do understand that it is demeaning for people with disabilities to be expected to enter in a different entrance, use a freight elevator, and experience other indignities associated with this kind of jerry-rigged access.

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Orlando, Florida: Has being any way to measure the effectiveness of the ADA Law thru the states and territories? Can you say that the ADA Law is successful in achieving its goals and which area of the ADA is most in need of federal enforcement?

How much work is needed to be done? How can you rate the progress? Have you taken a trip to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico or the Virgin Island? It might take you back to 20 years ago.

Andrew J. Imparato: That's a great question and I don't know that I have a great answer. When Congress passed the ADA, they said that we have four goals for public policy for people with disabilities were equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency. When you look at our poverty rates, unemployment and underemployment figures, and lack of access to cutting edge technologies it is clear that we are falling short of these goals in every state. I think you raise a great point that we need to better measure how states are doing and establish some goals for compliance that every state can try to achieve.

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York, PA: How can a person with a disability who is trying to hold down a job and not be relying on receiving federal disability benefits, encourage/enforce an employer to follow the ADA requirements, when being denied a promotion because of a physical requirement that he cannot meet? Can this be done without obtaining assistance from a lawyer, the cost of which can be prohibitive on a low salary?

Andrew J. Imparato: Thanks for your question, which really looks like two questions. One is about what to do when you experience discrimination, and the other is whether it is a good idea to get a lawyer involved. I think it is important to be an effective self-advocate at work, and learn how to get your employer to recognize your talents and abilities. When you run into an attitudinal barrier on the part of a decisionmaker and are passed over for a promotion, I think you should try to meet with the decisionmaker and hear them out about why you were passed over, and try to get them to describe what it would take for you to get the promotion the next time. If all else fails, you can contact the EEOC and file a complaint without a lawyer, but certainly having a lawyer helps depending on how far your complaint needs to go in the legal process.

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Washington, DC: How do you think the new health reform law will be helpful to people with disabilities, and what are the health coverage and health care challenges that have not yet been addressed by this law or other laws?

Andrew J. Imparato: Thanks for this question. Health reform has lots of great things in it for our community, including eliminating pre-existing condition exclusions and lifetime caps on benefits. I think there is a lot to be worked out in the implementation of the health reform law, but we at AAPD are very excited about all of the positive changes that that law is likely to bring about for people with a wide range of disabilities and chronic health conditions.

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Northern Virginia: Wasn't sure from your last answer: does ADA apply to US territories like Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands, or just the states? The question suggested it is being entirely ignored in the territories.

Andrew J. Imparato: yes ADA, like other federal civil rights laws, applies to the territories. If you go to www.ndrn.org, which is the website for the National Disability Rights Network, you can see the federally funded protection and advocacy agency that serves every state and the territories. The protection and advocacy agencies that serve Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands and others would be the best folks to ask about how the ADA affects the local governments and what is the best strategy to tackle systemic problems with compliance.

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NoVa: Since the ADA Amendments Act passed a couple of years ago, what's next? Any plans to grow AAPD and increase its outreach and how do you evaluate AAPD's effectiveness?

Andrew J. Imparato: We are working hard on HR 3101 at the moment, which is a technology accessibility bill. We are also working on organizing for the midterm elections, and leveraging the ADA anniversary today to shine a spotlight on many of the issues that we are still working on. If you go to our website at www.aapd.com, you will see that we are out there on a lot of issues. One of the measures of AAPD's effectiveness that we are focused on right now is growing our presence in social networking. We have a cause and a fanpage on facebook, a group on linkedin, and a twitter feed which is @aapd. All of those are growing fast, but we could use your help in spreading the word! How would you suggest we measure our effectiveness?

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Pittsburgh, PA: As a deaf woman, I can attest to changes in accommodations for the disabled from the early 90's to now however there remains a long way to go. Last week I attended the 2010 National Fair Housing Policy Conference hosted by HUD where the performer of a one man show about racial housing discrimination denied the sign language interpreters access to the stage. The reasoning was that previously with sign language interpreters there was a delay between his speech and the sign language interpreters' interpretation. Their complaint was that the deaf audience laughed later than the general audience which ruined the show. Sadly, moments such as this are typical. More often, the general audience complains about captions in any public place ranging from restaurants to movie theaters to conferences. Those in charge must recognize that they hold a responsibility to uphold the ADA and other anti-discrimination laws even when they face push back because the accommodations that allow minimal access for the disabled "distract" others.

Andrew J. Imparato: Thanks for that recent example of how we are not there yet. Last year, when I was trying to place a deaf AAPD Congressional intern in the office of her member of the US House of Representatives, I was asked by the intern coordinator "Excuse my ignorance, but what would a deaf person do in a Congressional office?" That intern ended up working for a different member and had a wonderful experience, but the level of ignorance in our community, even in the halls of Congress, can still be very high.

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Arlington, VA: Regarding the Internet, the law isn't exactly totally clear. Federal agencies are required to be 100% accessible by what we refer to as Section 508, but that law only covers the Federal web pages. What are the chances those requirements are expanded to other web sites? If that happens, I'll go freelance and triple my hourly fee!

Andrew J. Imparato: LOL. As I'm sure you know, we have been working hard with the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology to try to clarify and improve the state of the law as it applies to the internet. I think we have strong leadership at the Civil Rights Division at DOJ under Tom Perez and Sam Bagenstos and Mazen Basrawi, but the federal government needs to do more on this issue, including the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education and others.

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Washington, DC: There seems to be a major backlog of cases at the EEOC, where complaint cases are not heard for several months. Has this backlog created any problems for cases dealing with ADA law?

Andrew J. Imparato: I would say that the backlog at the EEOC is a significant problem, and has been for many years. I know that the Obama Administration is putting more money into civil rights enforcement across the board than has been the case for many years, but you are right to raise the issue because a backlog can mean that people have to wait months and years for their cases to be resolved which is unacceptable.

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Rockville, MD: York, Pa with the employer and ADA issue might want to talk to folks at the Disability Rights Network in Harrisburg.

Andrew J. Imparato: Thanks for that suggestion.

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Alexandria, VA: I am a double leg amputee who uses a wheelchair at night and in the morning. I also have many friends who, for various reasons, need a wheelchair all day to get around.

Please, please do not use the term wheelchair bound. That makes it sound like a prison rather than the mobility tool that it really is.

Andrew J. Imparato: Agreed. I don't use the term, and I make an effort to educate people when I hear that term or "confined to a wheelchair" being used. I usually say that a person "uses a wheelchair" or "rides a wheelchair".

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Fairfax County, Virginia: I have been impressed by the role something like the ADA plays even when it is never formally invoked. I have a friend with a permanent and genuine back problem -- ruptured disk.

Simply by discussing the need for "reasonable accommodation" without ever even saying "ADA" or "law," he has been able to get a more suitable chair and desk for his workspace that has made all the difference in the world to him, all but eliminated multi-day absences that sometimes happened when his back went out, and basically been a win-win for him and his workplace.

Without the ADA "atmosphere" this would have seemed more like one individual demanding something to suit his personal taste, rather than an acknowledged business issue with disabilities. Same also goes for situations where he is required to stand in long lines, as with voting -- usually there is at least some "accommodation," even if it is only a folding chair he moves along the line with him. Thank you for all you do.

Andrew J. Imparato: Thanks for your important observation. The ADA truly has made America work better for everyone, and we all have reason to celebrate this historic 20 year anniversary today!

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DC: Do you worry at all about the ADA being dilluted by the recent changes? It seems that everything is a disability now under the ADA. It feels almost like it weakens the law, and is not what the ADA was originally meant to address.

Andrew J. Imparato: Thanks this is a very important question. I don't worry about it being diluted because the ADA protects people against discrimination in the workplace, and I know that discrimination can happen to people with a wide range of conditions. I would worry more if we were broadening who is eligible for a disability parking placard or for disability retirement benefits. But for equal opportunity in the workplace, I am convinced that a broad definition is the way to go.

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Alexandria, VA: Are there ways that you would like to see the ADA itself changed in the next 20 years, do you think we need any more amendments?

Andrew J. Imparato: We have talked about amending the law to make it clear that it applies to the internet, and we have discussed changing the Echazabal decision analysis of direct threat in the workplace. Also, we are working with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights to overturn the Buckhannon decision, that made it harder for civil rights plaintiffs to get attorneys fees. Bottom line is there are always ways to improve a civil rights law, but there are also always risks in opening it up.

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Boston MA: Andy how can we work together to reduce the disincentives to work for people with disabilities in the Social Security System and to encourage employers via the ADA to hire more people with disabilities given the nearly 75% unemployment rate for people with disabilities.

Andrew J. Imparato: This is one of the most important issues we face as a community. I believe it is immoral and bad policy that we ask 18 year olds with significant disabilities to swear to the government that they can't work in order to demonstrate their elibility for social security. The definition in that statute needs to be modernized and I don't understand why anyone should have to swear that they can't "engage in substantial gainful activity" in order to get health care and income supports. I would change the statute to talk about substantial barriers to employment and not make it an all-or-nothing system, but this is a complex topic. Email me at aimparato@aapd.com and I'm happy to share more ideas on this key issue.

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Washington DC: What has AAPD accomplished? Why aren't people with disabilities at the forefront? For example, I remember you speaking out during the Gallaudet protests. As far as I know, you are not deaf, but were speaking for deaf people. Why don't you put more people forward with disabilities to speak for themselves?

Andrew J. Imparato: Thanks for your question. I have bipolar disorder, and I am happy when people with disabilities stand in solidarity with each other on a range of issues that affect different elements of our community. There will never be a single disability leader who can effectively speak for the entire community. What I have tried to do in 10 plus years at AAPD is be a good listener and try whereever possible to put disabled people in a position where we are speaking for ourselves.

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Alexandria, Va.: This morning on WTOP, an official of the US Chamber of Commerce was interviewed. He claims to have envisioned, drafted, and pushed-through what is now the ADA. He claims that businesses of all sizes always supported the ADA and that there is no history of any non-compliance -- he said that all enforcement efforts and claims to date have, in every case, been "junk lawsuits."

Your thoughts?

Andrew J. Imparato: We worked closely with Randy Johnson and Mike Eastman at the chamber on the recent ADA Amendments Act, which they supported. Randy was also a House staffer for Representative Steve Bartlett during the original ADA, so my thoughts are that it is good for us when the business community supports our civil rights. I would also argue that it is good for business as well. I was happy to see Time Warner Cable issue a press release today stating their strong support for the ADA.

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Columbia, MO: Is the U.S. Department of Justice going to announce the release of the updated ADA regulations today?

Andrew J. Imparato: I believe that the President is going to make some announcements at the ADA anniversary event at the White House this afternoon, and I wouldn't be surprised if one of the announcements relates to the Department of Justice's regulations. Having said that, I don't know the answer to your question. I do know that the White House plans to stream the event live with captioning. I believe you can find it at www.whitehouse.gov if you log on around 5:30, when the event is supposed to begin.

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Andrew J. Imparato: Okay if there are no more questions let me just thank everyone who logged on for this and encourage you to visit AAPD's website at www.aapd.com and sign up for our free Justice for All listserv. Also, if you are on Twitter, you can follow us @AAPD and you can follow me personally @AndyAAPD. Here's to 20 years of civil rights!
Andy Imparato

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