WASHINGTON – Ten years after Congress enacted the American with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities say they still face discrimination.
They encounter barriers to equal access in the workplace, schools and state institutions. And as a group of disability rights activists discovered Tuesday on the steps of the Supreme Court.
After a rally outside the Capitol, thousands of demonstrators marched down Constitution Avenue toward the Supreme Court, where justices next Wednesday will hear arguments on whether or not Congress overstepped its bounds in enacting the ADA.
Sign language interpreters attempted to stand on the court’s steps so that deaf participants could follow the program. But city police, enforcing a law prohibiting use of the court’s steps by demonstrators, ordered them off the steps.
Demonstrators, many in wheelchairs, shouted “equal access,” and one man attempted to use a nearby trash can as a soapbox.
For many people with disabilities the ADA – a broad federal law that requires all employers to accommodate qualified workers with disabilities and mandates equal access to public and private buildings – has changed their lives. Automatic doors, ramps and wheelchair accessible bathrooms are common in public buildings. And employers who discriminate against people with disabilities can face federal lawsuits.
But a case to be argued at the Supreme Court Wednesday could weaken the ADA, and that's got disability rights advocates worried and paranoid.
The case, University of Alabama Board of Trustees v. Garrett questions whether Congress exceeded its authority by enacting Title II of the ADA. Title II bars employment discrimination by a state and mandates equal access to publicly operated services, such as education and health care. It also gives someone who has suffered disability discrimination the right to sue a state, an exception to the 11th amendment.
The case is the result of a 1997 lawsuit by Patricia Garrett, the director of nursing at the University of Alabama Hospital. Garrett, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994, sued the state in 1997 for discrimination. A U.S. District Court dismissed the suit in 1998. In 1999, the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit overturned the decision.
Alabama says the lawsuit is baseless because Congress violated states' rights in enacting the ADA. Next week, attorneys for Patricia Garrett will contend the state’s history of disability discrimination was so egregious that Congress had the power to override state sovereignty.
Although the question is not whether the entire ADA is unconstitutional, advocates said a weakened ADA could result in more employment discrimination and less access to state buildings and services.
Bobby Coward, of the Washington chapter of Adapt, a disability rights advocacy group, said he's outraged that a decision by the Supreme Court could “take the teeth” out of the ADA.
“When you have a law that's optional, you have a law that's no good,” said Coward, who attended the demonstration. “This is my civil right.”
Before marching to the Supreme Court, disability rights activists staged a rally outside the Capitol featuring two dozen speakers who emphasized the significance of the case before the Supreme Court.
At the rally, marchers, many in wheelchairs, wore T-shirts and waved paper fans that said, “Don't Tread on the ADA.” They came from as far as Alaska and like convention delegates, carried placards with their state's name.
Civil rights leaders such as Jesse Jackson, founder of the Rainbow Coalition, Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Patricia Ireland of the National Organization of Women also came out in support of the rally.
“It's really important for the disabled to come here because 10 years ago we fought really hard to get this ADA . . . and what they are saying is it is unconstitutional,” said Cathy Zinman, one of at least 200 New Jersey residents at the rally.
“Our civil rights depend on the ADA,” Gordan, an attorney with the National Association for the Deaf, told the crowd. “Now is not the time to turn back the clock. We need to ask the lawmakers not to weaken or kill the ADA but strengthen it.”
After listening to pleas by two deaf attorneys, police offered to supply interpreters with a two-step ladder. Claudia Gordan, the nation’s first black deaf attorney, said the incident showed how people with disabilities still encounter discrimination.
“This is a violation of the ADA,” she said through an interpreter. “It’s all a case of ignorance.”