Even a pandemic cannot keep Minnesotans from celebrating the 30-year anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and 75 years of the National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Several of the state’s disability service organizations sponsored the virtual event, which was offered in accessible formats.
Typically the ADA anniversary is celebrated in July with performances, speeches, food and fellowship. But the event was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizers hope to have a big public celebration as soon as it is safe to do so. But the virtual event drew positive reaction.
More than 400 attendees celebrated accomplishments of the past three decades and reviewed what is ahead, with a focus on continuing to move forward. They enjoyed performances by Twin Cities artist and activist Dupree and the disability artists’ ensemble Alice Sheppard and Kinetic Light, which will perform at Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota later this year.
Gov. Tim Walz delivered a proclamation in honor of the event. Attendees also heard many inspiring words and a comprehensive legal update on the ADA’s three decades in the courts, and how workers with disabilities fought for their rights.
One highlight was an appearance by former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who spoke for full inclusion beyond accommodations. Harkin served in the Senate between 1985 and 2015. He was asked by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) to craft legislation that became the ADA.
Harkin now leads the Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement, and focuses much of his time and energy on disability rights and employment issues.
One of Harkin’s vivid childhood memories is of his brother Frank being sent halfway across the state to a school for the “deaf and dumb.” His brother responded by saying, “I may be deaf, but I’m not dumb.” That experience shaped Harkin’s lifelong quest for equal rights for people with disabilities, confronting pitying and patronizing attitudes and life limitations.
Harkin recalled that he gave his ADA bill speech on the Senate floor using American Sign Language (ASL) and then had to repeat it verbally because no one there could interpret ASL.
Another highlight was hearing from Kevin Lindsay, former Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights and current executive director of the Minnesota Humanities Center. Lindsay was praised for his commitment to equal treatment for people with disabilities.
Lindsay and self-advocates Sherry “Bart” Bartholomew and Adonia Kyle spoke for the need for people with disabilities to keep moving forward in the quest for equal rights. Bartholomew and Kyle are artists with disabilities who spoke movingly of their life experiences and the need for inclusion.
Nationally prominent attorneys Barry Taylor and Rachel Weisberg reviewed three decades’ worth of legal cases based on the ADA. They outlined how courts at first very narrowly defined disability and disability rights until Congress was forced to step in with amendments to the ADA. Those amendments have helped people with disabilities as they seek the same right to work as others have. But the legal cases have been complex, with very different outcomes over the years.
Cases they discussed ranged from the early case Sutton versus American Airlines to cases involving telework or working remotely. A very recent case, Peeples versus U.S. Clinical Support Options, was called out as an example of what is happening in a changing legal and work landscape due to the pandemic.
In the latter case a worker who has moderate asthma asked to work from home when pandemic restrictions began. That was changed to in-office work after a couple months, with minimal accommodations The worker with asthma was so fearful of illness, that person only ate and drank while sitting in a vehicle.
When it was learned that other employees had been granted permission to continue working from home for reasons not related to disability, the employee sought and was again denied permission to do the same thing. A court granted a preliminary injunction so the employee could go back to working at home.
The event will be posted on the ADA30MN.com website.