ADA25: We've Come a Long Way, But... (Part II)

During the ADA25 celebration at City Hall in Philadelphia—commemorating the 25th year of the Americans with Disabilities Act—someone made a comment along the lines of “this is fantastic, but we still have a long way to go.” This sounded vaguely familiar.

On the train ride home, I checked my cell phone and found the source of déjà vu. It was an article I wrote in the late 1990s. This article, titled We’ve Come a Long Way, But… acknowledged how accessibility has improved while attitudes have not. (If you click on the previous link, you’ll find maddening examples of how more Deaf advocacy was, and still is, sorely needed.)

One of the telling signs that the aforementioned article is old is its reference to TTYs. Technology has vastly improved since those teletypewriter days. We now have videophones, Video Relay Services with VRS operators available 24/7, cell phone emails/texting, FaceTime, Glide, and more. Contacting another person, Deaf or hearing, has never been easier.

Accessibility in public has vastly improved as well. My family—all of us, Deaf and hearing—can go to the movies together. Granted, those captioning glasses are a little clunky, but they’re much better than the rear-view captioning that had us squirming in our seats.

Access to sign language interpreters has also improved. At a recent follow-up appointment for one of my kids, I forgot to request an interpreter; since this doctor’s office was in a hospital building that has interpreters available on call, the receptionist made a quick phone call and we had an interpreter with us in five minutes.

Note: This is still the exception, not the norm. There are many places where you have to haggle before they’ll provide you with an interpreter. Contact your local interpreter referral service if this is a problem. In my neck of the woods, we’re fortunate to have the Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre (DHCC) advocating for, and providing for, our needs.

Clearly, accessibility has improved. Significantly. This is the primary reason we should celebrate ADA25.

As for attitudes… this is the primary reason I'm banging my head on my desk. In many places, attitudes toward the Deaf community—and especially American Sign Language (ASL)—have gotten worse. My old article from the ‘90s seems tame compared to what we’re facing today. For instance:

  • Highlighting a weird trend that shows things are simultaneously getting better and worse, there’s been a sharp increase in hearing people learning sign language (primarily in college and high school ASL classes), while actual Deaf children and their parents are being told to avoid it. The biggest irony remains the fact that parents of hearing babies are flocking to baby sign language classes because they know it provides a head start to language acquisition, and yet Deaf babies are often denied that opportunity.  
  •  Related to the above, a majority of parents whose children have cochlear implants are told not to sign, because signing will allegedly slow down the auditory-verbal progress that cochlear implants can provide. This is a travesty because research has proven the opposite—children with cochlear implants who have early access to sign language are often the ones who make the most progress. (For those of you who would like more information on this subject, check out this article.)
  • Not only is an increased emphasis on mainstreaming further isolating Deaf children from their peers and role models, but there are actually situations where Deaf children in the same mainstream school are intentionally kept apart. (For my world-class rant on this subject, click here. You will also find more research related to the cochlear implant issue discussed in the previous paragraph.)

  • Audism—the attitude that those who can hear and speak are better than the Deaf—exists not only in mainstream society but, unfortunately, in Deaf schools as well. In many places you will find important decisions being made on behalf of Deaf children without any actual Deaf people being involved in those decisions.

Okay, that’s enough. I’m depressing myself and any readers I have left. But seriously, this is why I went to the ADA25 celebration with mixed feelings.

And I’m glad I went.

As soon as my family arrived at City Hall we were greeted by many familiar faces, members of the Deaf community who showed up to celebrate and make a statement.

Of course, the Deaf community is not the only community for whom the ADA was intended. There was a huge turnout of people from all walks of life who benefit from the increased accessibility the ADA provides. What struck me was how many of these groups were loud and visible. During the parade from City Hall to the National Constitution Center, trust me when I say we made some noise. The larger-than-life float of Justin Dart—the activist who helped pass the ADA in 1990—was an inspiration.

Mental note to self: The Deaf community needs to be louder and more visible. In today’s mainstream society we tend to get pushed to the wayside by others who speak for us, without us (hence the motto for the 2012 National Association of the Deaf conference: “Nothing About Us, Without Us”).

I was also inspired to see Councilman Dennis O’Brien and Senator Tom Harkin marching along with us. To have powerful people in high places who get it means so much. When Senator Harkin--the Senate author of the ADA-- greeted the Deaf contingent in ASL and posed for pictures, it made my day.

There’s still hope. I look forward to ADA30 and writing an article titled “We’ve Come a Long Way” without the “But…” attached.