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Beyond the ADA: Piecing Together Disability Rights

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The ADA affects employment discrimination, physical access and equality for people with disabilities. But there are some issues that aren’t covered in the ADA.

Most of those issues are covered in other laws. The president of Fort Wayne’s League for the Blind and Disabled, David Nelson, says the laws were passed at different times, creating a patchwork of civil rights coverage. One of those issues is education.

Equal education is protected by the ADA, but education law for people with disabilities was created in the 1970s. Nelson says the goal is usually to include students with disabilities in classes with other students, but sometimes a student needs specialized education.

“There’s a good amount of time when, instead of making the kid come to the resources, we ought to have… the resources go to the classroom with the child,” Nelson said.

Luke Labis did not need a separate classroom. He has cerebral palsy and needs some accommodations in the classroom, like a different desk and someone to help take notes.

When Labis was growing up in Fort Wayne, teachers would sometimes think his physical disability affected his mental abilities.

“Teachers didn’t know what I could do, so they kind of talked down to me and didn’t really think I was even capable of carrying on a conversation or even answering a question,” Labis said. “I just had to break down that barrier, and that was the biggest difficulty.”

The accommodations Labis received in elementary and high school were required before the Americans with Disabilities Act through laws like the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, but the laws didn’t cover higher education.

Now, the 21-year-old is a student at Ball State. The ADA requires publicly-funded organizations—like universities—to be accessible for people with disabilities. This means Labis has a note taker and desk for each class and has access to the university shuttle.

Labis’ mom, Jan, says they are grateful for the laws that help her son receive equal treatment in education.

“One of the great things about ADA is making education accessible,” Jan Labis said. “It’s not someone doing the work for him; it’s somebody writing down his thoughts. So leveling the playing field academically was real important.”

Jan says that sometimes receiving equal education required them to fight for it. She says there’s a tension between parents, who want more for their children, and the school, which is trying to cut costs.

“I totally sympathize with the school,” she said. “There’s only so many dollars to be spent. There’s only so much staff that there is.”

But money shouldn’t be an issue, David Nelson says.

“If that service and that support is needed by that child in order to get a free and appropriate education, that’s the key: what is needed to get a free and appropriate education, then the cost doesn’t matter. The child is entitled to that,” Nelson said.

Education isn’t the only issue that is covered by other laws. The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 prohibits airlines from discriminating against people with disabilities. This means people can bring wheelchairs, service animals or whatever else they might need on the plane.

The Fair Housing Act is part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and prevents discrimination when selling or renting a house. The law covers many groups, including people with disabilities.

Nelson says these laws—along with the ADA—are pieces of a puzzle that create the framework of civil rights legislation for people with disabilities.

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