The Americans with Disabilities Act: Implications for Older Adults

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  • 0:02 Aging into Disability
  • 0:52 Before the ADA
  • 3:49 After the ADA
  • 6:15 The ADA & Older Adults
  • 7:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, we will imagine life before and after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) from the perspective of a person who has survived a stroke. You will also learn why the ADA specifically benefits older adults.

Aging into Disability

At age 65, Eli, an accountant, has survived a stroke. Though he had no difficulties with speaking and hearing when he was younger, since the stroke, Eli is having challenges with hearing conversations and with articulating himself through speech. He also uses a wheelchair to help him stay mobile given that his lower body does not provide a stable base for walking these days.

This lesson highlights how Eli's life as an individual with disabilities would be different before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and after the Act was passed. We will compare these two scenarios to demonstrate the impact of the legislation. Finally, we will look at how the Act specifically relates to the lives of older adults.

Before the ADA

We start off with exploring life before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. Eli's work as an accountant includes spending a lot of time working independently at a computer. After he recovers and is ready to get back to work, he will be able to perform the essential functions of his job with a few adjustments. As Eli makes plans to return to employment, he runs into some challenges that need to be addressed.

One barrier is that the desk at his workplace does not allow room enough for his wheelchair to fit underneath it. While it won't take much money to make this adjustment, Eli doesn't have the funds to invest in a new desk himself, and his employer has declined to purchase it themselves.

Another issue is that Eli periodically needs to make phone calls. This will be a problem because he finds speaking by phone challenging these days. While today the Internet allows more options, in 1990 Eli's communication would have been much more restricted without a telephone.

Unfortunately, Eli discovers he will not be able to attend mandatory weekly meetings at the corporate office since the group gathers on the fourth floor and there is no elevator. After years of excellent service with the same company, Eli finds his employer reluctant to work with him on these issues, and his manager decides to terminate his employment. As he applies to other jobs, Eli finds similar barriers despite his experience and skills at performing the duties of the job.

To top it off, Eli is having trouble finding transportation getting to and from work and leisure activities since his local bus service is not designed for wheelchairs. Even if the bus was able to transport Eli, the sidewalks near his home have high curbs that do not allow his wheelchair to pass safely from one side of the street to another.

Even fun activities, such as going to the movies, are more limited now due to trouble accessing the building or hearing the audio. Aggravated, Eli heads to his local government office to try to share his experiences with a state representative but finds that the front door can only be reached through steps, and there is no ramp available.

Eli has spent his life as a productive and active individual and even after his stroke felt ready to tackle new things. Yet he finds himself limited in ways he never imagined. While he can accept the reality of the disabilities themselves, he feels the most frustration when he cannot perform daily activities or participate in the typical opportunities afforded to others.

Other groups of individuals have felt similar exclusion, but for different reasons. For instance, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had begun to address barriers created by discrimination based on race and other aspects of a person's identity. Now, how would legislators make it possible for a man like Eli to successfully engage in everyday life and employment?

After the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, aimed to provide those with mental or physical disabilities equal opportunities to experience mainstream, public life. Modeled after the Civil Rights Act, the law prohibits discrimination in areas such as employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications, and governmental activities.

Since the passage of the Act, Eli's return to work would be very different. As long as the cost and difficulty was not extensive, his employer could be asked to provide a desk that allowed access for his wheelchair. This is known in the ADA as a reasonable accommodation, or a change that makes it possible for a person with a disability to apply for a job, perform job functions, or enjoy equal benefits available to others in the workplace.

An accommodation is considered reasonable when it does not put undue hardship on an employer. The change to Eli's desk is neither difficult nor particularly expensive, and this simple change will make the difference to him in allowing him to work.

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