Children and the ADA: The Promise of Tomorrow

Article excerpt

The recent enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been widely heralded as the most significant advancement in civil rights for individuals with disabilities in the last 20 years. The ADA (Public Law 101-336) was passed by the House and Senate on July 12 and 13, 1990, respectively, and signed into law by President Bush on July 26, 1990. While a majority of the debate on the ADA has focused on rights usually thought of as primarily beneficial to adults, in reality the law might be of even greater value to children.

For children, the ADA is an important missing link in the compendium of laws (including the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Education of the Handicapped Act -- recently renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) reinforcing the civil rights of children with disabilities. Disability is defined in the ADA as a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of an individual, a record of such an impairment or being regarded as having such an impairment" (Section 3(2)). It sends a clear and unmistakable message to children and their families that opportunities for the future are wide open, and that children's early aspirations are both attainable and unlimited. The ADA is a signal for children today of the promise of tomorrow.

The ADA contains provisions concerning protections that both supplement and go beyond those in previous legislation in terms of employment, public accommodations, services and telecommunications, as well as detailing the rights of individuals to seek compensation in situations where they were wronged. This article will summarize the important provisions of the law in light of how they might affect children. The law's potential impact on giving children hope for the future is discussed first. Then, some of the more specific provisions in the ADA are summarized, closely followed by the sections of the law as they might currently apply to children.

Children's Aspirations

Title I of the ADA deals specifically with employment, requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities who are qualified to do the job. While most children, of course, do not dwell on their employment prospects until they are nearly finished with school, aspirations are formed early. Children with disabilities need to know they can strive for any career without their progress being impeded by small things unrelated to their skills -- things which employers can reasonably accommodate. A reasonable accommodation, as defined by the ADA, means making facilities and equipment readily accessible and useable to those with disabilities, and modifying or changing work schedules to better accommodate individuals (Section 101(9)).

Examples of reasonable accommodations noted in the law include (but are not limited to) the provision of interpreters for workers who have hearing impairments, readers for workers who are blind, the purchase or modification of equipment or specialized devices, adjusted work schedules, or the modification of examinations or training sessions. The law states, however, that such accommodations cannot cause undue hardship to businesses. Such hardships will be determined by the overall size, nature and financial resources of the business. Because the law is somewhat vague, this definition of undue hardship may be a bone of contention in the beginning of the law's implementation.

The employment section of the law also explicitly prohibits discrimination against any persons with a disability in "job application procedures, the hiring, advancement or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions and privileges of employment" (Section 102(a)). This means that employers cannot do things that limit individuals' opportunities because of their disabilities. …