Disabilities Act Marks 15th Anniversary Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act 15 years ago, and it has since had a profound impact on the public's attitude toward people with disabilities. It's also playing a key role in the lives of wounded soldiers returning from Iraq. Joseph Shapiro and Steve Inskeep discuss the ADA.

Disabilities Act Marks 15th Anniversary

Disabilities Act Marks 15th Anniversary

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Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act 15 years ago, and it has since had a profound impact on the public's attitude toward people with disabilities. It's also playing a key role in the lives of wounded soldiers returning from Iraq. Joseph Shapiro and Steve Inskeep discuss the ADA.


Fifteen years ago today, the first President Bush signed into law the Americans With Disabilities Act. This legislation sought to eliminate all forms of discrimination against the disabled. But the ADA's success has been mixed. NPR's Joseph Shapiro has studied this law and he's the author of the book "No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement." And he joins us now. Good morning.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO (NPR Science Correspondent; Author, "No Pity"): Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So when you walk around in the United States, in any American city, how does that city look different because the ADA was passed 15 years ago?

SHAPIRO: You can see new buildings that have been built. They're easy to get into for someone in a wheelchair. There are no steps or they have ramps. Usually, it's something that you don't even notice. But they're just built differently so people can get in. If you get into an office, that means you can get a job.

We also see buses with wheelchair lifts. If you can get your wheelchair onto the bus, you can get to work.

INSKEEP: The act required people to take reasonable--not extreme, but reasonable steps to accommodate the disabled. Are the lives of disabled different than they were in terms of how much money they make, or anything else that gets tracked?

SHAPIRO: Employment's still a big problem. Only about 30 percent of people with significant disabilities are employed. That unemployment rate has not budged in 15 years. Some people say it's still too hard to get a job. Others say that it's too hard to take a job, because there are disincentives to taking a job. A lot of disabled people depend on state and federal insurance to cover their medical expenses, so...

INSKEEP: Which they would lose if they took a job?

SHAPIRO: They would lose--yeah. The unemployment rate's still been a big problem.

INSKEEP: What has happened to public attitudes toward the disabled in these 15 years?

SHAPIRO: Attitudes have changed, but not always. And there were two stories in the news this past month of kids playing baseball. One was a kid named Matthew Whaley, who's an eight-year-old in Kansas, and he has cerebral palsy. He uses a walker. He wanted to play baseball like his older brother, but the recreation department said no. Matthew Whaley went into a courtroom and showed the judge how he can swing a bat with one hand and hold onto the walker with the other. The judge said `Let's let him play.' And so a kid like Matthew Whaley, he doesn't think about limits anymore.

Now the other story, though, wasn't so nice. There was another story about T-ball that came out of Pittsburgh and police arrested a T-ball coach for ordering one of his players to hurt a disabled kid. And the police said the coach--he was so competitive he didn't want this kid with autism to play, so he offered kids on the team 25 bucks if they'd throw a ball and hurt his seven-year-old boy named Harry Bowers. Again, Harry Bowers, he didn't think there were limits to his being able to play. It was only sort of this ugly attitude of the coach that seemed to prevent him from doing so. The lawyer for the coach, by the way, says it was all a big misunderstanding.

INSKEEP: So on this 15th anniversary, what remains to be done in the area of the law and people with disabilities?

SHAPIRO: Well, the courts have struggled with the definition of who is disabled. It's pretty clear that someone who's in a wheelchair, someone who's blind, someone who's deaf, that they would qualify as being disabled. But what about somebody with high blood pressure? Or somebody with diabetes? And the courts have excluded them. Those decisions have cut out a lot of people who were benefitting from this law, people with more minor disabilities. And when the Congress passed the ADA, it was really focused, not so much on the definition--they kept the definition vague on purpose. It was more focused on trying to prevent discrimination.

INSKEEP: Joe Shapiro, recently you've been reporting on American military personnel who returned from Iraq, wounded personnel. How does the Americans With Disabilities Act apply to them?

SHAPIRO: It applies to them and you can see in their attitudes, they're not asking for any kind of pity. They're simply saying this is another mission to get better and to go on. They're not thinking about what they can't do, and they're challenging the military to open up more opportunities for them. This is really the first generation coming back from war that's had the ADA to protect them, and these soldiers know it and they've got this different attitude about how they're going to deal with their disability and live the lives they want.

INSKEEP: That's NPR science correspondent, Joe Shapiro. Joe, thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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