The Presidential Policy Series: Disability Rights


The Presidential Policy Series covers where the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, respectively, stand on healthcare policy issues.

Although it seems like our country’s two main political parties are as polarized as can possibly be, there actually has been a few health issues that both Republicans and Democrats have historically agreed on. Disability rights have traditionally been one such example.

Going back to 1990, the monumental Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was authored by Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, passed by an overwhelming margin in the Senate and the House. President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, signed the act into law and applauded the bipartisan effort of Republicans and Democrats. Eighteen years later, President George W. Bush, also a Republican, followed in his father’s footsteps when he signed expansions of the ADA into law after receiving approval a Democrat-controlled Congress.

However, this long-standing trend of bipartisanship support has been questioned of late. In 2012, Senate Republicans blocked the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities treaty, despite a broad, bipartisan coalition. Republicans were split, and the Senate was unable to obtain the necessary two-thirds of votes to ratify the treaty. On top of that, this presidential campaign has only added to the uncertainty. Hillary Clinton has made disability rights a focus of her campaign, promoting her policy agenda in speeches and commercials. Whereas Mr. Trump has been criticized for making insensitive remarks and actions of those with disabilities, calling for less “political correctness.”

While disability rights are taking center stage with the two main candidates presenting different views, future bipartisanship still remains a likely outcome based on previously recorded party positions.

Republicans call for policy that supports the inherent rights of individuals with disabilities. The G.O.P. platform vows to support those rights by guaranteeing access to the necessary tools and education to “compete in the mainstream of society.” Republicans support increased access to education and competitive employment, and vehemently oppose non-consensual withholding of care or treatment of those with disabilities.

Democrats’ position on disability does not differ all that much from Republicans. They support “equal access, equal rights, and equal opportunities to make a life for themselves and to contribute to their communities.” Democrats support Secretary Clinton’s agenda, which vows to fulfill the promise of the ADA and continues to expand the opportunities for individuals with disabilities, especially improving access to meaningful and gainful employment, as well as housing in integrated community settings.

For the benefit of the more than 50 million Americans with disabilities, let’s hope we follow in history’s path with policy that both parties can agree on.

Disability Law, Policy and Civil Rights Movement

Attorney General Eric Holder Signs Proposal to Improve Movie Theater Experience for Disabled Americans

On July 25th, 2014, the Justice Department released a statement announcing that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder signed a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that will affect Title III regulation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Title III of the ADA focuses on public accommodations, such as restaurants, hotels, theaters, doctors’ offices, libraries, and the like, and states that these establishments may not discriminate based on disability status(es).  The NPRM Attorney General Holder supports focuses on requiring movie theaters to provide closed captioning and audio description that will improve movie accessibility for those with visual and hearing disabilities.

Attorney General Holder made the following statement about the proposed amending:

This proposed rule will allow all Americans, including those with disabilities, to fully participate in the moviegoing experience.  With this proposal, the Justice Department is taking an important step to ensure consistent access for people with vision and hearing disabilities.  Twenty-four years after its passage, the Americans with Disabilities Act remains a critical tool for extending the promise of opportunity and inclusion for everyone in this country.

(Excerpt from the DOJ’s Press Release statement about proposed amendment.)

Interior of a Movie TheaterWhat do these proposed new accommodations mean for disabled moviegoers?  The closed captioning access would allow for captions to be delivered to a patron’s seat, and would only be visible to that user.  The audio description access would allow patrons with varying degrees of visual abilities to participate in the movie-going experience by making available a spoken narration of key visual moments in the movie; such as action points, setting locations, facial expressions made by the characters, costumes/clothing worn, and scene changes.  These descriptions will be transmitted via an user’s wireless headset.

The amendment proposed would establish a nationwide standard for movie theaters to showcase movies that would allow closed captioning and audio description to be made available to patrons would would benefit from the accommodation.  However, there are two caveats to this proposal:

  • The first being that theaters can be non-compliant if providing such accommodations would prove to be an undue burden or fundamental alteration.
  • Secondly, the DOJ is not requiring theaters to add the accommodations to movies that cannot be adapted with these features.

As someone who is hard of hearing (HoH) and uses two digital-style hearing aids, this proposal would greatly benefit me as a moviegoer.  Though my hearing aids assist me greatly, having the closed captioning option as an accommodating tool would enhance the movie theater experience for me, and others like myself.  Closed captioning and audio description features provide more social inclusion for those who would utilize them.  As we look ahead to the 25th anniversary of the ADA in 2015, this proposal is a great reminder that there is still a tremendous amount of work left to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access and opportunities, justice, inclusion, and acceptance in our society.  Individuals with visual and hearing disabilities, along with those with other forms of disabilities, are still in great need for more accommodations and accessibility to be made available to them – a few ramps, braille on elevator pushkeys, and wide bathroom stalls are not enough.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of AI Squared.)

Wal-Mart Being Sued for Disability Discrimination by the EEOC in Chicago

Earlier this month, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) took action by filing a lawsuit against Wal-Mart for allegations that the supermarket chain unjustly fired an employee with an intellectual disability who worked at the Rochford Walmart store in Illinois.  The grounds of the lawsuit pertains to the claim that the store revoked the employee’s workplace accommodations, and as a result, made it difficult for him to complete his job tasks, was unfairly disciplined, and ultimately fired from his position.

Wal-Mart Lawsuit 1John Rowe, the Chicago EEOC district director, stated the following about the investigation the EEOC conducted on the discrimination allegation:

What our investigation indicated is that Wal-Mart rescinded a long-standing practice of giving written job assignments to the employee, William Clark. That accommodation had been the key to permitting Clark to successfully perform his job during an 18 year career at Wal-Mart and to his meeting the company’s performance expectations. We determined that shortly after rescinding the accommodation, Wal-Mart began disciplining Mr. Clark for supposed performance issues, and that ultimately lead to his termination.

(Quote from the EEOC’s press release about Wal-Mart lawsuit.)

The EEOC did not pursue a lawsuit at first with this case; it tried unsuccessfully to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.  The EEOC filed its case on July 1st, 2014, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Western Division.  The EEOC filed the suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits workplace discrimination under Title I.  Title I outlines the responsibilities of places of employment to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees.

John Hendrickson, regional attorney of the EEOC’s Chicago District Office, stated the following as to why the EEOC took the stance it did in suing Wal-Mart for disability discrimination:

The EEOC’s position in this case is that Wal-Mart just took away — with no good reason — an effective workplace accommodation of an intellectually disabled employee. That reversal fatally compromised the employee’s ability to continue doing a job he had done so well for many, many years, and ended up with him being fired.

It’s hard to fathom what drove Wal-Mart to this course of action, but the EEOC response will definitely not be a mystery. We intend to show that the company’s action was a particularly senseless violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act — an especially hurtful injustice — that Mr. Clark is entitled to full make whole relief and to punitive damages, and that the public interest requires strong injunctive measures to correct Wal-Mart’s practices.

(Quotes from the EEOC’s press release about Wal-Mart lawsuit.)

This is not the first lawsuit the EEOC brought against Wal-Mart this year.  In March, Wal-Mart was ordered to pay a $363,419 settlement for an EEOC sexual harassment and retaliation case.  In that case, Wal-Mart was found to be in violation of federal laws by permitting a co-worker to sexually harass an employee with an intellectual disability working at a Wal-Mart store in Ohio.

Wal-Mart promotes itself as being a supermarket store that cares about its customers and employees, but it seems that the giant chain has a peculiar way of accommodating and protecting the rights of its disabled employees.  As customers of goods, we have a responsibility, regardless of our abilities, to inspect the conduct of such businesses, and possibly reconsider where we spend our hard earned money if they are found guilty of discriminating against certain groups.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of CNYCentral.)

Hospital to pay $75,000 for Discrimination against Child Care Worker with Cerebral Palsy

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

In late February 2014, a hospital was ordered to pay $75,000 for violating the federal anti-discrimination laws when it refused to hire a volunteer who had a disability.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Chicago District Office was responsible for processing the charges of discrimination that the volunteer alleged to have taken place.

Disabled Worker 5The Bright Beginnings of Osceola County, a day care center operated by the Osceola Community Hospital in Sibley Iowa, was accused of failing to hire a volunteer employee into a paid position due to her having cerebral palsy.  The volunteer was fully qualified for the position, and in fact, had a job where she drove a school bus.  When the EEOC conducted its investigation on the volunteer’s claims, the agency found evidence that the hospital purposefully refused to hire her, in fear that her disability would cause her to not be able to fully tend to the children that would be under her care.

The discrimination the EEOC discovered was in direct violation of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Title I under the ADA focuses on employment, and here is a summary of what Title I says about employing people with disabilities:

Employers with 15 or more employees may not discriminate against qualified people with disabilities in hiring, promotion, compensation, or any other aspect of employment.

A “qualified person” is an individual with a disability who is able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations.

(Excerpted from McGuire Associates’ Americans with Disabilities Act Fact Sheet)

(Reasonable accommodations could include providing adaptive equipment such as an adjustable work desk, modifying the employee’s work schedule, etc.; basically any changes that would not prove to be a hardship for the employer.)

Title I also covers inquiring about a prospective employee’s disability status, and when medical and psychological tests can be conducted:

An employer may not inquire about the medical conditions or disability of a job applicant prior to making a qualified job offer.

Similarly, medical and psychological tests can be given only after a job offer, and only if such tests are directly related to the job.

(Excerpted from McGuire Associates’ Americans with Disabilities Act Fact Sheet)

A quote from EEOC Chicago District Regional Attorney John Hendrickson in the article about the hospital discrimination case resonated with me, and I wanted to share it because it is something that ALL organizations should remember:

“Sometimes it looks like organizations engaged in the health care field or in the performance of other ‘good works’ consider it impossible for them to have discriminated — or to be challenged for having discriminated — particularly when it comes to the ADA.”

“But our experience has been that all organizations, whatever their line of business and however they are organized, are vulnerable to falling into patterns or acts of discrimination if they do not consciously make compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws a priority.”

(Excerpted from the EEOC Newsroom Release.)

Being ignorant of the law is no excuse to not abide by it, or violate the rights of others.  With the labor force participation rate for people with disabilities being at 19.1% in February 2014, in comparison to those without disabilities being at 68.5%, discriminating against those with disabilities is hindering our efforts to seek and obtain living wages to improve our quality of life.  Just as I reiterated the importance for private business owners who serve the public to be familiar with the law when it comes to service animals, it it just as imperative for hiring personnel, organizations, and corporations to be aware of and abide by what is outlined under Title I of the ADA when it comes to employing those with disabilities.

If you are a person with a disability who believes that you have experienced employment-related discrimination under the ADA, do file your complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  The EEOC has 15 District Offices across the nation that are capable of investigating your case.  If you are in the Palmetto State (South Carolina), your District Office is located in Charlotte, NC, and the Local Office is located in Greenville, SC.

Reporting such violations will decrease the occurrence of this practice.  In order to effect change and equality, you have to ramp your voice so that justice and respect for the law will prevail.

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of Woman.TheNest.)

The ADA, Service Animals, and Places of Business

Service Dog 1

The article I wrote in January about a restaurant owner’s refusal to serve a veteran with a service dog raised questions about how businesses are to respond to people with disabilities who use service animals.  Today, I wanted to share what the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have to say about service animals in privately owned businesses that serve the public.

The ADA has a frequently asked questions page about this matter, and I decided to select a few question and answer statements from the page that business owners need to know in order to not offend those who use service animals or violate the mandate.  The key “take home points” within each response will be in bold.

How can I tell if an animal is really a service animal and not just a pet?

A:  Some, but not all, service animals wear special collars and harnesses. Some, but not all, are licensed or certified and have identification papers. If you are not certain that an animal is a service animal, you may ask the person who has the animal if it is a service animal required because of a disability. However, an individual who is going to a restaurant or theater is not likely to be carrying documentation of his or her medical condition or disability. Therefore, such documentation generally may not be required as a condition for providing service to an individual accompanied by a service animal.

Although a number of states have programs to certify service animals, you may not insist on proof of state certification before permitting the service animal to accompany the person with a disability.

What must I do when an individual with a service animal comes to my business?

A:  The service animal must be permitted to accompany the individual with a disability to all areas of the facility where customers are normally allowed to go. An individual with a service animal may not be segregated from other customers.

I have always had a clearly posted “no pets” policy at my establishment. Do I still have to allow service animals in?

A:  Yes. A service animal is not a pet. The ADA requires you to modify your “no pets” policy to allow the use of a service animal by a person with a disability. This does not mean you must abandon your “no pets” policy altogether but simply that you must make an exception to your general rule for service animals.

My county health department has told me that only a guide dog has to be admitted. If I follow those regulations, am I violating the ADA?

A:  Yes, if you refuse to admit any other type of service animal on the basis of local health department regulations or other state or local laws. The ADA provides greater protection for individuals with disabilities and so it takes priority over the local or state laws or regulations.

I operate a private taxicab and I don’t want animals in my taxi; they smell, shed hair and sometimes have “accidents.” Am I violating the ADA if I refuse to pick up someone with a service animal?

A:  Yes. Taxicab companies may not refuse to provide services to individuals with disabilities. Private taxicab companies are also prohibited from charging higher fares or fees for transporting individuals with disabilities and their service animals than they charge to other persons for the same or equivalent service.

What if a service animal barks or growls at other people, or otherwise acts out of control?

A:  You may exclude any animal, including a service animal, from your facility when that animal’s behavior poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. For example, any service animal that displays vicious behavior towards other guests or customers may be excluded. You may not make assumptions, however, about how a particular animal is likely to behave based on your past experience with other animals. Each situation must be considered individually.

Although a public accommodation may exclude any service animal that is out of control, it should give the individual with a disability who uses the service animal the option of continuing to enjoy its goods and services without having the service animal on the premises.

All excerpts are courtesy of the Frequently Asked Questions page about service animals and businesses.

Though some of the statements I highlighted may seem to be ones that should be understood by all, they are not. People with disabilities are denied service and full participation in establishments utilized by the public each and every day in this country, and abroad.

Being ignorant of the law is no excuse when breaking it, especially when it infringes on the rights of a person to use a service or facility.  Business owners have to be knowledgeable about what their responsibilities are when it comes to the law, and people with disabilities have to speak out when their rights have been violated, whether intentionally or not.

Every week, I come across stories of people with disabilities, regardless of their ability, experiencing discrimination at alarming rates.  2014 will mark the 24th anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and we are still fighting to “get in” and be treated as equal.  How much longer will the fight continue before the legislation is respected and followed, and we are given the opportunity to fully participate in all facets of society?

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Wet Noses Dog Treats.)

Denied Service at a Restaurant Because of Service Dog

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

In Mooresville, North Carolina, a disabled veteran was denied service at a restaurant because of his service dog.  Benjamin Wardrid, a veteran who served in the Iraq War, experienced his first taste of discrimination as someone with a disability who uses a service animal.  Wardrid was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, upon returning home from serving in the U.S. Army.  Beau, Wardrid’s service dog, assists in ameliorating the symptoms of PTSD Wardrid may experience in his day-to-day life.

Service Dog in Training 1Last Wednesday, Wardrid was prevented from being served at a local restaurant while on a family outing because he had his service dog with him.  Wardrid knew that his rights had been violated, and he and Beau returned to the restaurant the following day accompanied by two police officers.  During the second visit, Wardrid and Beau were finally allowed in, and Wardrid was served.  The owner of the restaurant provided an off-camera statement that he has had “bad experiences” with service animals in the past.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) clearly outlines privately-own businesses’ responsibilities that serve the general population when it comes to service animals:

Privately owned businesses that serve the public, such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs, theaters, concert halls, and sports facilities, are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities.

The ADA requires these businesses to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals onto business premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed.

The ADA defines a service animal as:

Any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability.  Service animals perform some of the functions and tasks that the individual with a disability cannot perform for him or herself.

(Excerpt from the ADA’s Commonly Asked Questions about Service Animals in Places of Business webpage.)

The ADA clearly states that a service animal is NOT a pet.  When a service animal is assisting its owner, they are considered to be “working.”  Though some people may not be aware, it is discouraged to pet or stroke a service animal while working (especially if wearing a harness); to do so distracts the animal who has been trained to provide a service.

When this story was brought to my attention, I was shocked at the lackluster excuse the owner of the restaurant provided regarding his refusal to serve Wardrid.  Dogs who provide such services undergo vigorous selection and training processes; dogs with an aggressive temperament or demeanor are not selected to serve in this manner.  In my experience, the service dogs I have come into contact with were very calm and friendly when they were “off,” and attentive to their owner’s needs when “working.”

Regardless of the restaurant owner’s previous encounters with service animals, Wardrid should not have been denied because he had a service dog.  Any hesitations the owner may have had could have been resolved in a different manner; for instance, he could have brought his concerns to Wardrid’s attention, and an alternate seating arrangement could have been chosen.  Or Wardrid could have eased the owner’s concerns by discussing Beau’s demeanor, and how he would not be disruptive.

The ignorance or “fear” displayed by the owner is disturbing because it makes me, and possibly others who hear this story, wonder how many other “Wardrids and Beaus” were denied at this restaurant before this incident made news.  I also wonder about the treatment of people with disabilities at this restaurant; do people with disabilities feel welcomed, or is there an air of hostility that exists?

Have any of you witnessed discrimination against those who used service animals at public venues?  Have you been the victim of such discriminatory acts?  If so, how did you react, and what was the outcome?  I would like to have the opportunity to learn of your experiences and responses surrounding this matter.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Petfinder.)

The Fight for More Accessible Taxis Was Won In New York City

Wheelchair Accessible Taxi 1
New York City Taxis

Accessible taxis will now become a reality for those with disabilities in New York City as the city agreed to make 50% of its taxi fleet accessible by 2020.  The battle to create more accessible taxi transportation services for those with disabilities has existed for years. In 2011, four disability advocacy groups decided to file a class-action lawsuit against the city for its failure to be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) policy regarding public transportation.  Mayor Bloomberg’s administration had repeatedly denied being non-compliant when it came to providing appropriate accessible public transportation options to wheelchair users.

The agreement reached earlier this month regarding transportation accessibility outlines that half of the city’s 13,000+ yellow cabs must be accessible to people with disabilities in six years.  As of the time of this article, only 231 of the city’s 13,237 in-service taxicabs are wheelchair accessible.  Though the city did implement a dispatch program in June 2012 that allows wheelchair users to request the few available accessible taxis, this service alone does not ameliorate the transportation barrier that plague wheelchair users.  Given the national and international appeal of the Big Apple, it is unacceptable that 1.75% of New York City’s yellow taxicabs are currently wheelchair accessible.

The Taxi and Limousine Commission will pass regulations that will require cab owners to purchase wheelchair accessible taxicabs when it is time for them to replace or retire the taxicabs that are currently in use.  (Most taxicabs have a lifespan of three to five years, taking into consideration of how they are utilized.)  This landmark deal demands that half of all new yellow cabs that are obtain in any given year to be wheelchair accessible, until the 50% goal is achieved.

Winning this battle for transportation accessibility is a key moment in the disability rights and advocacy movement.  When disability advocates and allies band together to demand equality and justice for those with disabilities, especially when it is clearly outlined in a pivotal piece of federal legislation such as the ADA, our lawmakers cannot continue to ignore such united voices for what is right and just.  New York City is not the only city in the United States where the war for appropriate transportation options has been waged.  Transportation is a huge barrier that people with disabilities endure in rural and urban areas alike.  Not having access to appropriate transportation options unfairly disadvantages people with disabilities when it comes to attaining educational and employment opportunities, as well as hinders their ability to become independent members within their communities.

Many people are unaware of how serious the impact of a lack of accessible transportation can negatively affect one’s quality of life and gaining the opportunities to be productive, sociable, and self-sufficient members in our society.  It is erroneous to assume that policies regarding accessible transportation are being properly adhered to within our cities and towns.  I urge everyone who reads this article to research the accessible transportation options in their area.  If you find ADA-related compliance issues, write and/or call your local, state, and federal representatives.  It is only when we bring such disparities to their attention that empowering change(s) will occur.

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of NMEDA.)

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