HYANNIS — Cathy Taylor, assistant director of the Cape Organization for Rights of the Disabled, knows firsthand how the Americans with Disabilities Act has improved the quality of life of the disabled.
Taylor’s son, now 27, was born with multiple disabilities and was just a toddler when the act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush 25 years ago today.
“It was great for me as a parent of a child with a disability because all of a sudden I had this law that could help me,” she said, citing the availability of summer camp programs that had not previously existed for her son.
Taylor credits the ADA as being an agent of change for bringing the rights of the disabled to the forefront of society, increasing visibility and awareness of the disabled population, and making places much more accessible for the disabled. But she asserts more work still needs to be done.
“We’ve come a long way, but we are still not where we need to be,” she said. “ADA is about more than just ramps.”
Taylor believes a major challenge that lies ahead is better understanding and acceptance of individuals with invisible disabilities. These disabilities include mental illness, epilepsy, intellectual disabilities or chemical sensitivities. She said issues surrounding lack of tolerance of invisible disabilities have recently been brought to light by service dogs not being allowed into stores, restaurants or other public places.
“You can see someone in a wheelchair or someone who is blind with a guide dog and know they are disabled,” she said. “Even though we hear horrible stories about people not being allowed into places with service dogs, it builds awareness of the problem.”
Taylor also said more emphasis needs to be placed on increasing employment opportunities for the disabled. She said there is a perception that disabled employees will cost more to accommodate in the workplace and they will take more sick time than other workers.
“We hire disabled employees and they are not out sick all of the time, nor is it costly,” she said. “Sometimes it’s as simple as rearranging furniture to make the worker comfortable.”
Locally, she said two major challenges are access to recreational facilities, such as beaches, and making structures built in traditional, older Cape Cod architectural styles compliant with ADA regulations.
“Old time Cape Cod makes access harder and you have to think outside the box to be accessible,” she said. “Cobblestones are nice, but wheelchairs, canes and walkers don’t like them.”
Recently, SMILE Mass, a Sudbury-based organization, donated Mobi-chairs – beach wheelchairs with large tires that can float in the water – to 66 beaches from Bourne to Provincetown.
David Augustinho, executive director of the Cape & Islands Workforce Investment Board, said his organization has an advisory committee focused on finding job placement opportunities for the disabled population.
Of more than 30 career centers located throughout Massachusetts, Augustinho said the Hyannis center, which the Workforce Investment Board oversees, has the highest percentage of clients with disabilities than any other. He said approximately 13 percent of the clients in the Hyannis center are disabled, while the state average is between 6 percent and 7 percent.
While Augustinho says ADA has resulted in a lessening of prejudice against employing the disabled, and many employers are now aware that it is not overly expensive or difficult to hire people with disabilities, there is more work to be done.
“It has helped reduce discrimination, but it’s not a silver bullet,” he said.
— Follow Geoff Spillane on Twitter: @GSpillaneCCT.