Local people with disabilities this month are lauding progress made since enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 28 years ago, but also point to the remaining distance between where they stand today and equal access to all sectors of the community.
Signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, the ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals based on disability, requires employers with 15 or more workers to provide reasonable accommodation to employees with disabilities and imposes accessibility requirements on public accommodations.
Employment is an area in which the ADA has been very effective, according to Fredia McKinnie, assistant executive director of Employment Services at Community Access Unlimited. CAU, a statewide nonprofit providing support programs and services to individuals with disabilities as well as youth served under the Department of Children and Families (DCF), provides assistance in housing, life-skills training, vocational skills, money management, health maintenance, education, advocacy and recreation.
CAU's Employment Services Department supports members who want to work and partners with nearly 30 businesses who employ them. CAU works with its members to define and hone their job skills and provides on-the-job training once a position has been found. More than 50 CAU members are employed through the program.
"It gives our members a sense of value, being able to go to work, interact with people and make friends," McKinnie said. "It gives them confidence."
Chet Hosptantanker is a CAU member who works at ShopRite in Clark, a longtime employment partner of the agency.
"I do returns," he said. "I put items back on the shelf and customers ask me to help them find things. I like working because it keeps me focused."
More than 18 million Americans with disabilities are employed. Research shows there are significant benefits for businesses employing people with disabilities, including a higher retention rate, a greater attention to safety, an increase in diversity appreciated by consumers and tax incentives.
"We have a lot more businesses with initiatives to hire people with disabilities," McKinnie said. "They see the hard work our members put in. Sometimes they can rely on our members more than their other employees because they really like to work."
Despite gains in the employment sector, equity for people with disabilities has been slower on other fronts since enactment of the ADA, according to Charlotte Glover, advocate member support counselor at CAU, and Gary Rubin, a member of the agency.
Rubin is co-founder of CAU's New American Movement for People with Disabilities, an advocacy group that focuses on issues impacting people with disabilities such as health care, transportation and voting. Members of NAM often testify at freeholder meetings and candidate town hall sessions and meet with state and federal legislators.
"Our members feel that under the ADA, there has been progress but not enough," Glover said. "They feel there still is a lot that needs to be done and a lot that needs changing."
Rubin cited two primary concerns on which greater progress needs to be achieved: closure of the remaining developmental centers in New Jersey and the overall respect for the rights of people with disabilities.
"Some people are treating us more respectfully, things like the local YMCA being more accommodating for people with disabilities," he said. "But there still are many businesses that are not accessible. Even a local assemblyman's office is not accessible. We'd like to see that change."
Marcella Truppa, another CAU member, points to NJ Transit's Access Link as an area that does not adequately meet the needs of people with disabilities. Truppa works five days a week at CAU and relies on the paratransit system to take her to work in the morning and back home in the evening, as well as to get to doctors' appointments. Last year she testified before the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders about the matter.
"I told them the buses are not coming on time or are not coming at all and some members are being left at home or at work," she said. "We have to call them all the time or call staff for a ride. One member has a problem with her leg and needs the lift and sometimes the driver won't lower the lift. It's not fair."
Truppa said she was proud to testify before the freeholders.
"It felt good," she said. "I stood up for my rights."
About Community Access Unlimited
Community Access Unlimited (CAU), celebrating its 39th year in 2019, supports people with special needs in achieving real lives in the community. CAU provides support and gives a voice to adults and youth who traditionally have little power in society, assisting its members with housing, life skills, employment, money management, socialization and civic activities. Serving more than 5,000 individuals and families, CAU also supports opportunities for advocacy through training in assertiveness, decision-making and civil rights. For more information about CAU and its services, contact us by phone at 908.354.3040, online at www.caunj.org or by mail at 80 West Grand Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07202.