What the Americans with Disabilities Act Means to Me — My Personal and Professional Perspective

Written by Pshon Barrett, Esq. — 2020 ABLE NRC Ambassador


 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a comprehensive civil rights law which prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services and programs, private and public transportation, as well as equal access to services and benefits offered by millions of places of public accommodation. This landmark civil rights law for people with disabilities was signed by President George H. W. Bush on July 26, 1990.

When the ADA was enacted, I was employed as an Assistant U. S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi and given the unique opportunity of a 15-month detail in Washington, D.C. with the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section. When completed, I returned to the U. S. Attorney’s Office where I had the privilege of representing the federal government for the next 23 years enforcing Titles II and III of the ADA. That experience has led me to continue my career in the private sector representing clients under the ADA. Despite the ADA’s mandate to provide technical assistance materials containing guidance on the various provisions of the ADA to the disability community, governmental entities, public accommodations and employers, I frequently find businesses are not aware of its provisions and beg for more time to comply. The ADA has long lost its infant status and has emerged into a 30-year-old adult. Perhaps, the generation of Americans with disabilities who have grown up since its passage, will pick up the mantle and shepherd the ADA beyond the culture and mindset which existed 30 years ago. Let us not forget that systemic ableism has had, and still has, an adverse effect on many of our fellow Americans with disabilities.

As a totally blind person, I have benefited from standards regarding the height of protruding objects, identification signs on rooms and elevators, talking ATMs, the ability to cast an independent, secret ballot, descriptions of non-visual aspects of museums, movies and live performances, if available, limited increase in the accessibility of Braille materials and other instances of a public or private entity’s policies of effective communication of visually displayed information. Perhaps some of my most memorable experiences were carrying the torch in the relay during the 10th anniversary ADA celebration and participating in the celebration in Washington, D.C. I will never forget sitting in the pouring rain at the Roosevelt Memorial with tears streaming down my face as former President Bill Clinton introduced Justin Dart, who has been called the “father of the ADA.”

As we approach the 30th anniversary of the signing of this important legislation, we have an opportunity to celebrate its positive impact on American society, as well as reflect on ways that the ADA can be strengthened and perhaps updated in order to be more relevant in the digital age.

During the ADA signing ceremony, President Bush declared, “…Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” What exclusionary walls continue to exist? What are the barriers confronting the disability community during the next 30 years? Certainly, in the area of communication, individuals with disabilities are excluded from equal access due to inaccessible websites, lack of closed captions and audio description on the internet, lack of access to emergency information on TV, lack of access to kiosks, digital displays on household appliances and electronic equipment, as well as inferior or non-existent access to other digital venues which are becoming a singular and routine method for performing the most basic functions of interacting with commerce and medical providers. Transportation barriers continue to affect access to health care, employment and the ability of people in the disability community to access discretionary events and services on the same level as other individuals. The absence of compulsory process for enforcement agencies, such as the Department of Justice, and the prohibition of the recovery of damages in private litigation, are additional barriers which must be addressed if the ADA is to take its place on equal par with other civil rights laws.

We have much history to celebrate as we acknowledge the bi-partisan support of the passage and amendment of the ADA. We also have cause to anticipate the creativity, commitment, and determination of young leaders in the disability movement. To quote the beloved leader and disability rights advocate Justin Dart: “Lead on!”

 


 

About the Author

Pshon Barrett is a Sr. Associate with the ADA Group, a law firm which specializes in representing claimants under the ADA and IDEA. Previously, she served for over 35 years as an Assistant U. S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi where she focused on ADA enforcement as well as general civil and financial litigation cases. Pshon holds a B. A. degree from MS State University, a M. A. from Reformed Theological Seminary in Marriage and Family Therapy and a J. D. from the University of MS School of Law. Pshon is a 2020 Ambassador for ABLE NRC and is an enthusiastic ABLE account holder. She is a member of the MS Bar Lawyers and Judges Assistance Committee and a member of the Board of Directors of the American Association of Visually Impaired Attorneys. Her hobbies and interests include reading, current events, Bible study, adaptive computer technology, piano and vocal music, investing, fitness and spending time with friends. Pshon has been blind from birth and resides in Jackson, MS.

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