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    Wednesday, May 22, 2024

    ADA in its 33rd year yet challenges remain

    Bill DeMaio was working for the parks and recreation department in New Britain on July 26, 1990 when President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act.

    The landmark civil rights act was expected to address discriminatory practices and usher in a new era of independence for people with disabilities but DeMaio recalls there was some grumbling from those in his field.

    “Everyone was saying, ‘Oh my goodness, all of the playgrounds have to be ripped down because they’re not accessible and its going to pose such a problem,” DeMaio said.

    DeMaio, who has spent much of his life advocating for people with disabilities, immediately saw the signing of the ADA as a positive, something that would open up grant opportunities and help transform recreation areas and programs previously inaccessible to people with disabilities.

    As the 33-year anniversary of the ADA draws near, DeMaio said that while the ADA is still evolving and challenges remain, the law was transformational.

    “It’s a civil rights equality legislation that allows people to operate, work, live and play fairly and equally in the state of Connecticut and in this country,” he said. “The ADA strives for equality and gives people with disabilities freedom and rights that they never had before.”

    The ADA defines a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”

    DeMaio, now superintendent of Parks and Recreation in the town of Newington and a nationally certified ADA coordinator, is also chairman of the board and president of the ADA Coalition of Connecticut. The volunteer group is helping to train businesses, government officials and “almost anyone that will listen to us.”

    The town of Newington is in the process of renovating all of the town’s 12 playgrounds.

    The American with Disabilities Act is many things but in general prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in public and private places such as jobs, schools and transportation. They are rights similar to those protections provided for people on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age or religion. The ADA contains five categories: employment, state and local government, public accommodations, telecommunications and miscellaneous.

    The ADA assures employers with 15 employees or more provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants and employees, a provision of the law that is enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The law ensures people with disabilities have access to public meetings, public transit or can make a phone call even if they have speech or hearing disabiltiies.

    The law is wide spanning and covers a host of areas the general public might not be aware of, Kathy Flaherty, executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, Inc, said.

    “When people conceive of a disability they really think of a physical disability and wheel chair ramps and buttons on doors or braille on elevator buttons... But it’s really a broad law that covers a lot of different things,” she said.

    It’s everything from closed captioning on a television to an elevator at a town hall. An individual with Opioid Use Disorder, for example, is protected under the ADA, including those people taking a prescribed medication such as methadone or suboxone and as long is a person is not taking illegal drugs. As it does with many illnesses considered disabilities, Flaherty said the law prohibits an employer from refusing to hire or fire someone simply because they are taking a medication, she said. Similarly, she said, if someone is using medical marijuana or has asthma, “that fits the bill as a disability.”

    The law had evolved through the years and in ways tried to keep up with the latest technology, DeMaio said. For instance, movie theaters recently became more accessible for people with hearing impairments and even blindness by providing headsets.

    DeMaio, 64, gave up his driver’s license at the age of 30 because of a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa. He lost his eyesight completely at the age of 53. He uses a guide dog to aid his freedom and independence.

    “Years ago we kind of blanked out me going to the movies with the family because it wasn’t entertaining at all. Now I love it. I’ve gone back because these little headsets describe what’s going on in the scene,” he said.

    After nearly 33 years, DeMaio said there are still hurdles such as those establishments that don’t allow service animals. He said mass transportation and employment are some of the areas that need work.

    “Employment is so difficult for someone with a disability because they get passed over or ignored. The fact of the matter is the person with a disability is out to prove to people they are equal or better (than an able-bodied person),” he said.

    Flaherty said employers might make assumptions about what it means to provide “reasonable accommodations,” as prescribed by the ADA.

    “It’s not waving a magic wand that protects you from anything bad happening,” Flaherty said. “You still need to do the essential functions of the job.”

    There is ADA work happening all of the time in cities and towns across the state. While any new structures must be ADA compliant, older structures continue to get updated.

    New London Parking Authority Director Carey Redd recently had funds approved by the City Council to help update the city’s public parking garage. The handicap parking spaces that were situated on an incline in the garage are being moved to a lower level where they are more accessible. Redd said he is following best practices in the industry and striving to be in compliance with ADA.

    Stephen Dayton, a senior outreach case manager for United Community and Family Services and working at the New London Senior Center, has lived his life in a wheelchair. Dayton grew up in New York and said while the ADA has helped transformed the landscape for people with mobility issues, he agreed there is still work to be done.

    There are plenty of parks and restaurants that lack proper access where he used to live in New York. Dayton said there people with mobility issues, himself and the elderly included, deserve the right to go to a concert or go out to eat like anyone else.

    Dayton is an advocate of New London’s planned community recreation center providing programs and equipment for people with mobility issues.

    “It’s a huge part of the population,” he said.

    There’s also still a stigma, he said, for people in wheelchairs and with disabilities in general.

    “Thirty years after there’s still so much work to be done both in making the community accessible but also culturally,” he said.

    Dayton is college educated, works full-time, is able to drive a hand-operated motor vehicle but has been to job interviews where the wheelchair seems to be a barrier.

    “Oh, I don’t know if this job would be great for you,’” is one of the responses he said would come from an employer unsure whether they could accommodate a wheelchair despite the fact Dayton is independent.

    For more information visit: www.ada.gov, www.adata.org, www.adacc.net.


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