Over the weekend, the ADA turned 25. So where was I 25 years ago? I just received my LL.M. in Health Law from Depaul University (prior to that I had done three years of high dollar value civil litigation), and was the General Counsel for Harris County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority in Houston, Texas. Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authorities, which is what they used to be called, are independent governmental entities in Texas responsible for ensuring the safety net for persons with mental health, intellectual disabilities, and substance abuse. They can be quite large. At the time, Harris County MHMR had 1000 employees and a $50 million budget. Obviously, the very nature of such an operation demanded knowing the ADA. Once I got into it, I realized that I had seen the rules before and not only was it a professional necessity, but it was also a way that I live my own life.
With respect to having seen the rules before, in college, I was part of the Governor of Illinois program where I was assigned to a state agency. In my case, I worked under the supervision of a wonderful supervisor, Susan Little, maiden name, and delved deeply into § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. In particular, I remember spending a great deal of time on the State of Illinois affirmative action program for persons with disabilities and whether it was working. That also led me into constitutional law and the doctrine, which you do not see much of anymore, of a irrebuttable presumption. So, when the ADA was enacted, I had already dealt with the rules involved in the Rehabilitation Act. Therefore, the basic premise of the ADA was familiar to me.
With respect to the professional side, obviously all of the clients of the mental health and mental retardation authorities were individuals with disabilities. So, the organization itself had to deal with clients with disabilities. They also had to be aware of the rights that persons with disabilities had in whatever context they might be in. Finally, the organization had its own independent obligations, such as developing self-evaluation plans and transition plans, both of which needed legal assistance to accomplish.
With respect to the personal side, as readers know, I am congenitally deaf but with the ability to lip read and extraordinarily powerful hearing aids, I have always functioned entirely in the hearing world. Hearing is actually two components. First, there is a volume component, which I have very little of without hearing aids. Second, there is a comprehension component, which is the ability to understand what is being said if the volume is loud enough. I never lost the comprehension component. If the volume is loud enough, I can get 80 to 90% of what is being said (it is extraordinarily unusual for a person with my volume of hearing loss to be able to comprehend the language to the degree I can if the volume is loud enough), and that combined with my lip reading skills, allows me to function in the hearing environment as a hearing person even though with hearing aids I still have a 40% hearing loss. What I realized was that the whole system of reasonable accommodations is something that I have always asked for just to be able to function at optimum capacity in the hearing world. For example, if someone was speaking with their hand over their mouth, I would ask them kindly to put the hand down. In college, I always made sure that I had a professor that spoke clearly and loudly. As time went on, I also developed some joint issues, which is not progressive, so that it became critical for me to use use voice dictation technology, which I started using probably about 17 years or so ago (I believe all editions of my book have been written with voice dictation technology).
In short, I have been involved with this area of the law for a long time, and it is both a professional and personal thing with me. I have always believed that this law works if people are properly educated about it. I have also believed that education and awareness of the rights of people with disabilities have to be seen from the perspective of the person with a disability or things will backfire.
Many of my fellow bloggers have written about how old they were when the ADA was enacted, and the reader can do the math and figure out how old I was when the ADA was enacted (I did not take off anytime from college before going on to law school). When the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 came into effect I would have been 13 or 14 years old. That basically put me in eighth grade. I was very fortunate to have gone to school in a town which at the time that was the center for the deaf and hard of hearing in north suburban Chicago. I was pulled out of classes for speech therapy and lip reading skills, but otherwise was mainstreamed. All of this was long before the IDEA and 504 plans. So, the process was all very informal. It is anybody’s guests act to what would’ve happened if the process was more formal a.k.a. 504 plans and IEP’s. I can say that if the process had been more formal, my parents would have been fierce advocates doing whatever was necessary to ensure that I maximized my achievement. I was fortunate that I grew up with the parents that allowed me to be given all the resources that I needed to succeed as a hearing person in a deaf world and for that I’m grateful. That is not to say that being a deaf person functioning as a hearing person in a hearing world was always easy. This was before the time of cell phones and Bluetooth devices and so people viewed people wearing things in their ears quite a bit differently. Also, being deaf but functioning as a hearing person can be a hard concept for people to grasp.
So, the ADA means a great deal to me. It isn’t really surprising that once I got involved with the ADA as an attorney in 1990, I never looked back. It is extremely important to me that people get this law right. As I say in my book, this law works if people just understand what the law is. That said, readers of my blog know that the ADA is extremely complex and there is no substitute for knowledgeable legal counsel. What I hope I do with my blog and with my practice is demystify the ADA.
In short, thank you Mom and Dad (Dad actually suggested that I pursue this field either in college or law school, and of course I resisted:-), and to all the folks that were responsible for the ADA, including but not limited to: George H.W. Bush, Senator Harkin, Senator Dole, Tony Coehlo, Chai Feldblum, Justin Dart, George W. Bush (he signed the amendments to the ADA that have been a real game changer), and the list goes on and on, and if a name is not mentioned, I mean no disrespect. Without the ADA, I would have no right to be accommodated in a hotel for example (hotels accommodating the deaf can still be a real trip so to speak but it’s nice to have the right to be accommodated), would be unable to watch British movies in movie theaters without becoming incredibly frustrated, and persons with disabilities would have a great deal of difficulty becoming part of society to their fullest capabilities. For that matter, without the ADA, one only wonders what area of law I would’ve wound up in (certainly not an area of the law that calls to me the way this one does).