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Americans with Disabilities Act turns 33

Wednesday marked the 33rd anniversary of the sweeping federal legislation aimed at removing barriers for persons with disabilities.

MINNEAPOLIS — When president President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, 1990, it created an expectation in federal law that the public and private sectors would remove barriers.

"Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down!" the nation's 41st President said during a Rose Garden ceremony.

KARE stories from that era focused on physical barriers persons who use wheelchairs face. But the ADA went well beyond that. 

"That was very much it, right? Ramps into the buildings, and elevators, and bathrooms you could at least get your wheelchair in. But then we realized that's just scratching the surface of actual accessibility, right?" Nikki Villavicencio, a longtime disability rights advocate and chair of the Minnesota Council on Disabilities, told KARE.

"Nowadays when we think of accessibility it's, 'How am I going to live in that community? How am I going to get around? How am I going to get to work'?"

Villavicencio and her husband Darrell Paulsen have pressed state lawmakers for years to fully fund programs that help persons with disabilities live independently, including personal care assistants like the one they rely upon to maintain control over their own lives.

They both use wheelchairs. Villavicencio was born with arthrogryposis, while Paulsen has cerebral palsy.  They're living in their own fourplex unit and are raising their daughter Alley.

In May of 2011, as the Minnesota Senate was debating same sex marriage, the couple created a ruckus in the Senate gallery. The Senate suspended business momentarily as Minnesota State Patrol troopers wheeled them out of the Capitol.

"All we want is to get up in the morning and get dressed and go down the street," Villavicencio explained to reporters at the time. 

The episode was a reminder that persons with disabilities continue to press for accommodations that are required by the ADA.

"The ADA means in my work life, in my public life, in my private life, I have the right to live as closely compared to a non-disabled person as I can," Villavicencio said.

Legal battles

Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid's Minnesota Disability Law Center goes to court for people trying to assert their rights under the ADA.

"We advocate for people with disabilities to access the necessary supports and services they need to live in their most integrated setting in the community so they can live where they want to live," Chad Wilson, of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, told KARE.

"The ADA recognizes that people with disabilities have the right to equal access to all public accommodations or state and local government services. It could be rights to transportation or rights to employment, or to housing."

The Center last year won a large case for Barry Segal, an accountant who was often missed by Metro Transit buses or struggled to get his service dog aboard.

"That case was brought because Mr. Segal who identifies as deaf-blind, produced evidence showing that Metro Transit failed to let him on board buses more than 150 times," Wilson said.

As a result of the settlement with Segal, Metro Transit created a new training video for drivers showing them where they need to stop for persons who have a visual impairment.

The Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid team also won a class action settlement with the Minnesota Department of Human Services, after it came to light that the agency was dragging its feet on helping people leave group homes and live in their own places.

"Essentially people for a long time were living in four-person group homes, and for a long time they made requests to live in the community and those requests were never responded to or formally given a yes or no," Wilson explained.

"And there wasn’t further information to let people know, 'Hey, if you want to live in your own home that might be an option for you.'"

As part of the settlement, DHS agreed to take corrective actions, including getting the word out to people about how to transition out of group homes.

Wilson spends part of his time doing continuing education for other attorneys on the ins and outs of the ADA and other applicable laws relating to helping persons with disabilities be fully integrated into their communities and workplaces.

He says it's important that society see the person first, not their physical or mental challenges.

"I use a wheelchair. But I’m a husband. I’m a father. I’m an attorney, a friend. I feel like I’m all those things before my disability," Wilson said. 

President Biden also noted the anniversary Wednesday with an official proclamation noting the bipartisan effort that led to the passage of the ADA, headed by then-Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.

"It is hard for younger generations to imagine a world without the ADA, but before it existed, if you were disabled, stores could turn you away and employers could refuse to hire you.  Transit was largely inaccessible," the president's proclamation reads.

"America simply was not built for all Americans, but courageous activists pushed to change that."

Villavicencio said the ADA became law when she was in the first grade, but it wasn't until college that she realized the ADA was just the beginning of what needed to be done to open up society.

"In college I learned how the ADA is a right,  that there are laws, but they’re unfunded. I learned it was an unfunded mandate."


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