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Happy 30th birthday, ADA. We have a lot of “ramps” left to build.


Many people think of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as something that’s been around since the civil rights movement or before. But actually, it only came into law 30 years ago, in 1990, under President George H.W. Bush.

It took that long for federal law to fully recognize that people with disabilities have the right to equal access to businesses, buildings, public transportation, and other services. The ADA also outlawed discrimination against workers with disabilities. Before its passage, people with disabilities had fewer opportunities to contribute their talents in the workforce.

How can we learn to see accessibility as a fundamental starting point, rather than an add-on?

Another common misconception about the Americans with Disabilities Act is that it only protects people with certain physical disabilities, like blindness, deafness, or conditions that affect mobility. Mention the ADA, and many people will think of a ramp providing wheelchair access to a building.

In fact, conditions like dyslexia, ADHD, and anxiety are just as real as visible disabilities — and are covered under the ADA. But many people don’t think about these invisible disabilities, or the barriers that people with invisible disabilities face every day. They may understand the need for literal ramps, but not even think about the many other types of “ramps” needed to make society fully accessible.

When the ADA was passed in 1990, there’s no question it was way overdue. But 30 years after its passage, we still have a lot of work ahead of us. Buildings are still being built without physical ramps, to say nothing of all the other “ramps” we’re missing. Today, people with disabilities — whether visible or invisible — are too often excluded.

So as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the ADA this month, it’s time to ask these questions: Have we thought deeply enough about how to apply the principles of the ADA throughout our society? How can we learn to see accessibility as a fundamental starting point, rather than an add-on?

And how can we make the next 30 years even better for people with disabilities of all kinds, including invisible ones — from mental health problems to invisible medical conditions to learning and thinking differences like dyslexia and ADHD?

Of course, we’ve had some amazing moments when it comes to the rights of people with invisible disabilities. In a major breakthrough, a federal court ruled in 2001 that Marilyn Bartlett had the right to accommodations on the New York State bar exam because of her dyslexia.

Then, in 2008, Congress and President George W. Bush expanded the ADA and made clear that the law includes disabilities that impact life activities like reading, learning, thinking, concentrating, and communicating. And in recent years, the U.S. Department of Justice has even focused on website accessibility, which wasn’t on the radar when the ADA was first passed.

However, these moments don’t yet add up to a greater vision of access for people with invisible disabilities, like those in reading, writing, math, and attention. So where do we go from here?

Here’s an interesting starting place: the classroom. Evidence shows that when schools incorporate the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), every student has access to learning and a chance to thrive. And as Understood begins working to shape the world for difference, we’re striving to take these ideas out of the classroom and into the world.

Unpacking Universal Design for Learning

People sometimes use the analogy of a “curb cut” to explain UDL. In other words, traditional teaching is just fine for all the kids who can metaphorically step up on a curb. But UDL creates a curb cut — one that in no way impairs those who were stepping up on the curb before, but also is accessible to those who aren’t able to.

By definition, UDL is a way of thinking about teaching and learning that helps give all students an equal opportunity to succeed. It offers flexibility in the ways students access and engage with material and show what they know.

Curb cut: A way of providing equal access to someone who otherwise would not have access.

UDL: A teaching approach that offers flexibility in the ways students access material, engage with it, and show what they know.

Using the principles of UDL while developing lesson plans helps all kids. But it may be especially helpful for kids with disabilities, including those with learning and thinking differences.

Here’s an example of UDL in action. In a traditional classroom, a teacher might give the class an assignment to write an essay about butterflies. But in a UDL setting, the teacher would need to first ask this question: “What do I want the students to learn from this lesson?”

If the answer is “I want them to learn about butterflies,” then maybe the students have an option of writing an essay, making a diorama, or giving an oral report to show what they’ve learned. The second and third option will accomplish the goal without cutting off access for kids who struggle with writing.

Now, if the purpose of the assignment is to get kids working on their essay writing skills, then why force them to write about butterflies? Why not let them pick a topic that’s especially interesting to them and that plays to their passions and strengths? For kids who struggle with focus and attention, this can increase interest and engagement in the assignment. They might decide to write about dance, basketball, or their favorite video game.

Bringing Together UDL and the ADA

So far, the principles of UDL have mainly been used in the classroom. But why does UDL have to stay there? Can the ADA be the key to better integrating these practices into our everyday lives? How do we create the equivalent of a curb cut in business, in government, and in the workplace for people with differences and disabilities of all types?

For example, someone who struggles with reading should have access to the same Wall Street Journal article as someone who doesn’t. The publisher could accomplish that by providing read-aloud technology, glossary features, multimedia, or other technology for all consumers. People who struggle with math should have the choice to view stock market data in visual or graphic format, not just in numerical figures.

In a work environment, companies should provide important communications in written, video, and audio form. Everyone should be able to opt for standing desks; it would definitely make work easier for people who have difficulty sitting still. In general, providing choices makes life better for everyone.

Government is no different. Why shouldn’t everyone be given the option to take their DMV tests orally? Read a transcript of testimony when they serve on a jury? Have the names of candidates read out loud to them in the voting booth?

Offering options — along with choice — essentially cuts the curb for everyone. (By the way, this serves all people, not just people with invisible disabilities.)

The Next 30 Years of the ADA

As we approach the 30th anniversary of its passage, let’s think about how we can take the ADA forward.

Understood is aiming to shape the world for difference. We envision a world where accessibility of all kinds is built in from the beginning for people of all nationalities, cultures, and social and economic backgrounds. Where we have “ramps” throughout society, physical and otherwise.

Too often, we think of difference as an afterthought, rather than an essential starting point. Let’s work to fix that.

Karin Bilich, vice president of editorial content at Understood, leads a team of writers, editors, and experts who focus on people who learn and think differently at home, at school, at work, and in life.

Andrew M.I. Lee, JD, associate director of editorial content, attorney, writer, content strategist, parent, and Gen X video and board gamer.

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