ACCESS Corner

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Building Opportunity By Bridging Gaps

by
Peter M. Robertson, MA CPCM
First Published in The National Focus Vol. 4, No. 3 Jan/Feb '92 Issue

Gradually, over the past two decades, the American Society has acknowledged that people with disabilities are denied access to the opportunities and benefits available to people without disabilities. Responding to the collective voices of citizens, government passed legislation intended to bridge gaps and build opportunity. Some of the most significant federal laws include: Architectural Barriers Act, Rehabilitation Act, Education for the Handicapped Act, Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act, Air Carriers Access Act, Fair Housing Amendments Act and, in most states, equivalent access laws. The most significant and recent piece of accessibility legislation is, of course, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

Combined, these laws mandate accessibility to the architectural, communication, employment, education, recreation, public service, public accommodation, transportation and other environments in all communities throughout the Nation. Unfortunately, just because accessibility is the law, does not mean everyone will (or has) jumped on the bandwagon. Nor does it guarantee the broad spectrum of accessible environments will be realized. For example, close examination of a local governments efforts to comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, typically reveals major deficiencies with even the most basic requirements of the law. Why?

A significant number of individuals with disabilities protected by access laws are unaware they even exist. Without demands from informed people with disabilities, many public service and public accommodation businesses will assume they are already accessible or take a "wait and see" position before implementing strategies and techniques to seriously identify and remove gaps. Therefore, a critical element for the full and successful implementation of our Nation's access laws will be a broad based disability and barrier awareness program.

In addition to understanding the rights and responsibilities under the different access laws, people with and without disabilities, federal, state and local governments, and private sector businesses need to understand the full spectrum of barrier-free environments. Physical, sensory and cognitive disabilities require different accommodations or adaptations within any given environment. An environment truly without barriers will consider each of these types of disabilities and alternative strategies, techniques and technologies that accommodate unique architectural, communication, public relations (service delivery, marketing & advertising), employment and transportation needs.

The ADA included technical assistance centers to help individuals with disabilities understand their rights and to help businesses voluntarily comply with the ADA. Other not-for-profit and for-profit accessibility consulting firms also exist to facilitate understanding and implementation of the access laws.

The most significant and direct benefit of full implementation of the ADA and other access laws will be for individuals with disabilities. Least obvious, yet equally significant, are the benefits to public and private sector business. Government alone will save billions of dollars,as individuals with disabilities reach greater levels of self-sufficiency and become productive, contributing members of society. Private sector enterprise too will reap rewards as they accommodate and attract a share of the 43 million consumers and employees with disabilities, their families and friends. The Nation will prosper as it continues to build opportunity by bridging gaps between it and people with disabilities.

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