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25 years after landmark Americans With Disabilities Act, efforts to aid the disabled continue

For two decades Douglas J. Usiak worked to drum up support for a law protecting the rights of those with disabilities. He went to rallies, organized voter registration drives and prodded politicians and candidates.

So Usiak vividly recalls the day 25 years ago when then-President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Usiak attended the signing at the White House on July 26, 1990.

He and his then-9-year-old daughter, Madeline, walked through the backyard of the White House on that sweltering, sunny afternoon.

A Secret Service agent gave his daughter a flag.

The lemonade served to guests tasted better than any lemonade he ever had.

At one point, he stood right behind then-Vice President Dan Quayle.

For Usiak, who lost his sight in 1974 while serving in the U.S. Army, it was a proud moment when the president signed the landmark civil rights law that aimed to change the everyday lives of millions of people.

On the law’s 25th anniversary, much has changed.

People who use wheelchairs can make their way into restaurants and stores on ramped entrances, and they can safely cross streets because of curb cuts.

Buses now kneel when their doors open for passengers.

Children with disabilities are welcomed in public schools.

The law also has reduced discrimination in state and local government services, barred intrusive disability inquiries during the hiring process and has made job accommodations for disabled workers more common.

The Americans With Disabilities Act offered protections like those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion to those with disabilities

The law’s passage was just the start, Usiak said.

“Now, we’ve got a law that says our communities should change, and it was our job that we had to make them change,” Usiak said. “We had the law behind us. The job just became super big now.”

But much work remains, said Usiak, 62, who’s the executive director of Western New York Independent Living.

Employment and independent living for people with disabilities are two of the areas where more improvement is needed in the Buffalo area, he said.

Employment challenge

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 12.5 percent in 2014, twice the rate for those without a disability.

Employers can do a better job creating job opportunities for people with disabilities, said Frank Cammarata, director of the Erie County Office for the Disabled.

“There are employers out there who could carve a job out, and instead of giving one individual a specific task, they could make it two or three tasks for more people,” he said. “People with disabilities are wonderful, wonderful employees. They want to do the best that they can, they are hungry to work.”

Cammarata said the Office for the Disabled hosts a career fair twice a year, with one taking place during National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October. The office also hosts a celebration for those businesses that hire people with disabilities. But it’s typically the same businesses honored every year, Cammarata said. Wegmans and Tops are two of the several businesses regularly honored.

The state also offers a Workers with Developmental Disabilities Tax Credit, worth up to $5,000 to businesses with full-time employees and $2,500 for part-time staffers who have worked for more than six months.

In September 2014, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo established the Employment First Commission to increase employment for people with disabilities and reduce the poverty rate.

Buffalo ranked among the top one-third best cities in the nation for workers with disabilities, according to a 2014 national study conducted by personal finance website WalletHub. Among the 150 largest cities, Buffalo ranked 47th, while Rochester ranked 92nd, New York City, 102nd, and Yonkers, 34th. The study based its rankings on 23 metrics related to economic environment, quality of life, and health care accessibility and quality.

Accessibility at issue

Buffalo’s new building projects and preservation efforts put developers in the position of working to make new and old buildings accessible.

Cammarata said they need to make considerations for both types of living spaces.

The need to make the accommodations is widespread – not just in older downtown buildings or new suburban office parks.

An estimated 62,473 non-institutionalized adults in Erie County have an ambulatory difficulty, more than half of whom are 18 to 64 years old, according to the 2013 American Community Survey.

One of every five census tracts in Erie County has an estimated 200 or people 18 to 64 with an ambulatory difficulty, according to the survey.

In Niagara County, a census tract in Wheatfield has nearly 400 people 65 or older with an ambulatory difficulty, the highest number of any tract in the county.

A Buffalo News analysis of census data shows several tracts where more than 25 percent of residents have a disability of some form: visual, hearing, ambulatory or difficulty with independent living. The tracts are in Buffalo, Cheektowaga, Amherst, Niagara Falls and Lockport.

A Getzville census tract, just north of the University at Buffalo’s North Campus, where 31 percent of residents live with a disability, has the highest percentage of people with a disability among Erie County tracts, according to the survey’s estimate.

In Niagara County, a tract in the City of Lockport has the highest disability rate: 27.4 percent.

“You’re kind of building for the future,” Cammarata said. “Everybody, as we age, there is a greater chance that something is going to happen to us which may leave us disabled.”

Organizations like The Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access aim to provide accessibility to all. The Center works on home modification projects, accessibility audits, offers online continuing education courses for those interested in learning about inclusive design, in addition to conducting research on accessibility.

Since 1984, the center has been one of the more prominent sites for activities related to universal design. Edward Steinfeld, an architect and architecture professor at the University of Buffalo, founded the center. In 1999, the center received a grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research. The grant allowed the center to expand its work.

“We’re also trying to make people realize that just because ADA is there, it doesn’t mean the job is done,” said Jonathan White, an architectural research and design associate with the center for over eight years. “There are minimum standards in place, but that doesn’t mean everybody is 100 percent accommodated.”

Coming together

Herbert Watson, who uses a wheelchair, said he has witnessed tremendous change in the community. Watson, 75, said he sees the structural changes and increased economic opportunities as positive steps.

But one of the biggest changes he’s seen isn’t tangible. He calls it the “coming together” of those with and without disabilities.

“Today, we are coming together like no other city on the East Coast,” he said. “I can remember when people were standoffish. But I guess people realized that togetherness is togetherness.”

Watson was among those who attended a signing Friday of the Buffalo Opportunity Pledge, held to coincide with the law’s 25th anniversary this weekend.

Mayor Byron W. Brown’s “Opportunity Pledge” – previously signed by city, state and local elected officials – is a symbolic pledge to embrace diversity, and economic and other opportunities in Buffalo for all people.

Brown and representatives from People Inc. signed the pledge on the Commercial Slip Bridge at Canalside to encourage businesses, residents, and organizations to promote hiring for people with disabilities.

Hard-fought gains

Usiak reminds people the Americans With Disabilities Act didn’t pass without opposition. Critics at the time contended the changes would be too costly. Its passage came about after many small fights and hard work over the years, he said.

Usiak spent two decades building support across the country. Organizers started locally in 1981, with a large disability rally in front of the former Federal Building on Huron Street, followed by a candlelight vigil in the evening.

Several attempts were made by the Ronald Reagan administration to weaken sections of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which banned discrimination on the basis of federally funded projects, in addition to laws regarding airlines and accessibility on airplanes.

By the mid-1980s, the Fair Housing Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act were on the table. Usiak and several organizers hosted voter registration drives, along with the late Justin Whitlock Dart Jr., an activist and advocate for people with disabilities. The group pressured and convinced presidential candidates to sign the ADA legislation if they were elected.

The act did not pass at first. But after more lobbying, it passed in the House and Senate the second time. Usiak was among those invited to the bill signing.

Usiak called it just the beginning of the work needed to make more progress.

“It was like, ‘Hey, this is great we got a law.’ But we got a law that was up to the person with a disability to enact it,” he said. “ADA is only enacted if you kick it in the butt.”