July 26 is a National Disability Independence Day, a federally recognized day to celebrate the 1990 signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The landmark bill prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and guarantees their civil right to access education, transportation, employment, and other services. Before the ADA, people with disabilities were not legally entitled to reasonable accommodations, including at universities and colleges.
Center for Inclusive Design & Engineering
Associate Professor Cathy Bodine, executive director of the Center for Inclusive Design and Engineering at CU Denver, got into the field of adaptive technology after working with people with cognitive impairments, including nonspeaking people. “There were so many assumptions and biases around their capabilities,” she said. “When I used technology to provide a voice for people with cognitive impairments who could not talk, I was able to demonstrate that they could engage and participate in the world.”
Becky Breaux, a doctoral student in the Health and Behavioral Science department and a senior research instructor at the Center for Inclusive Design and Engineering, shared a similar story. Breaux began her career as an occupational therapist. “When I provided assistive technology, I felt like it made a huge difference to my patients,” she said. “I realized the power that technology can have for an individual in helping them be more independent, safe, comfortable—whatever it is that’s important to them.”
Before the ADA
Many CU Denver students may be too young to remember what life was like for people with disabilities before the ADA was enacted. Daily life in the pre-ADA era was a struggle. Imagine being in a wheelchair and trying to enter a building without a ramp. Or being legally blind and not having access to a braille menu.
Jennifer Maxwell, digital accessibility coordinator at Community College of Denver, has two disabilities. “I use a wheelchair and I’m legally blind. I use a lot of the technology that I teach,” she said. She was lucky: she entered college after the ADA was signed into law, so she had a much easier experience.
She didn’t realize how difficult life had been for people with disabilities prior to the ADA—until she did some research. “From a textbook standpoint, they make it sound like the ADA was passed into law overnight,” she said. “History glosses over the fact that people had to really work to get these laws into place.” Learning about disability activism put the importance of the ADA in perspective. “It was really eye-opening—I had no idea what people went through back in the 70s and 80s.”
Bodine pointed out that local disability activists helped shape public policy. “Denver had the first bus lay-in,” she said. “People with mobility issues got out of their wheelchairs and demanded accessible buses.” This 1978 Denver protest, during which people with disabilities blocked traffic at Broadway and Colfax by laying in the street, was the first protest related to public transportation rights. “Just like any civil rights issue, there was a need to right an injustice,” Bodine added.
Higher Education for Students with Disabilities
Research shows that following the ADA, more students with disabilities enrolled in college. While these students may benefit from the law, they still face difficulties that people without disabilities do not face. “I speak from experience,” Maxwell said. “The number one difficulty is that many students coming out of the K12 system are funneled through in a very protective and regimented way, with parents and special education professionals who were always advocating on their behest.” In college, on the other hand, they need to advocate for themselves.
Maxwell pointed out that the majority of students with disabilities on the Auraria Campus have invisible disabilities—”mental health challenges, PTSD, autism, things you can’t see outwardly.” After being identified as persons with disabilities in school, many students with hidden disabilities want to forget the stigma they faced as children. “They think they can do everything on their own and then they wind up really struggling their first and second semesters because they’re not getting the support they need,” Maxwell explained.
Graduate student Gabriel Gates, who is working toward his EdD in the School of Education & Human Development, stated that while the ADA entitles people with disabilities like him to their civil rights, it’s not always easy for them: “In my lived experiences, the fight for justice has been a heavyweight fight with endless rounds, and antagonists have been trying to call the outcome of the fight before it is over.”
Letter Versus Spirit of the Law
Breaux thinks National Disability Independence Day needs to acknowledge disability rights. “The ADA is hugely important,” she said, “but there’s still work to do.” Graduate student Gates agrees. “I am grateful for all ADA has done to ensure equity, social justice, and most of all, independence for persons with disabilities,” he said. “I appreciate and celebrate all the accomplishments the ADA has helped us achieve since its pivotal establishment in July of 1990.”
Maxwell agrees. “There’s the letter of the law and then there’s the spirit—how good things could be,” she said. “A lot of time what happens is construction gets done to the bare minimum of what’s required by law.”
The same happens for technology. “For a lot of software, there are compliance testing tools that let you see if documents are accessible to people with disabilities,” Maxwell said. “Those are looking for very rigid set standards; they don’t really capture the spirit of full access and inclusion that we’re really looking for.” Bodine made a similar point: “People don’t design with full accessibility in mind—whether it’s a building, a widget, a wheelchair, or a street corner.”
Bodine conducted a study at the Center for Inclusive Design and Engineering in collaboration with Utah State University. Using focus groups, researchers looked at daily accessibility issues for people in wheelchairs. “It was stunning how many people told us that their motorized wheelchair battery had run out in an inconvenient place,” she said. “Some of them got taken to jail or to a hospital. The assumption was you’re not moving, therefore you must be sick.”
Maxwell, Bodine, and Breaux all hope that colleges, businesses, and governments will move beyond minimum accommodations and invest in universal design. “I’m a big proponent of universal design,” Maxwell said. “It’s about multiple modes of engagement, of expression … accounting for the variety in learning styles.” She believes universal design benefits everyone, not only people with disabilities. Inclusive teaching, paired with assistive technology, can equitably benefit an English Language Learning (ELL) student while benefitting a student who is visually impaired; it’s a win-win.”
At the Center for Inclusive Design & Engineering, Bodine and Breaux are seeing companies develop technologies to support universal design. “What’s happening with Apple, for instance,” Breaux said. “Nobody is requiring them to make iPhones more accessible; they’re doing that because people with disabilities are a huge market.”
I asked if the ADA would need to broaden its scope to include cellular and digital technologies. “Technology moves so fast, and federal regulation processes move so slowly,” Bodine said. In an increasingly computerized world, Bodine thinks well-designed accommodations will come as a response to market needs. According to U.S. Census population projections, by 2034 people over 65 will outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history. “The older generation as a market will do more to drive change. By 2050, how many of us will be able to get into a car and drive? We’re going to need autonomous vehicles,” she said.
Spectrum of Abilities
The ADA benefits people with and without disabilities. Bodine brought up situationally induced disabilities: “If you go somewhere where the sound levels are so high you can’t sleep and you don’t sleep for a few nights, then your cognition drops.” Even a loud bar can cause situationally induced disability. “Take closed captioning,” Bodine said. “It wasn’t designed to be used in a bar, but it turns out that when you’re in a bar, you can’t hear the game.”
Additionally, people without disabilities can age into people with disabilities. “A 20-year-old brain takes up the whole skull,” Bodine said. “Your brain literally shrinks with age. Thinking and remembering can take a long time. We’re all on a continuum of different functional levels at any given time—that’s why the ADA is so critical.”
Gates explained that people with disabilities are often forgotten in the discussion of diversity, equity, and inclusion. “Individuals with disabilities have historically been the last to receive equal rights in societies across the world. However, we are the largest minority group, and we are stronger together.”
People with disabilities are an underrepresented and underserved community, Maxwell said. “It’s good that in recent years disabilities are starting to be a bigger part of the conversation in the world of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” she said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. Simply because something exists as a law doesn’t mean that discrimination is gone—it’s about changing hearts and changing minds.”