On July 26, 1990, 17 years ago, the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush.

Geared to give civil rights protection to some 54 million Americans with disabilities, the ADA makes it illegal to discriminate against the disabled in areas of employment, telecommunications, transportation and public accommodations.

Specifically, the ADA applies to individuals who have mental or physical impairments that significantly restrict major life activities, including learning, walking, talking, hearing, seeing, breathing, performing manual tasks, or caring for oneself.

In fact, the ADA is the basis for recent work being done by the city of Tahlequah in front of Sequoyah Elementary. The city is resurfacing all the sidewalks in front of the school to bring them up to ADA standards.

In Oklahoma, there are 604,245 Oklahomans ages 5 and over to whom ADA protection extends, according to the 2000 Census. Additionally, another 31,214 Oklahomans reside in institutions for the chronically ill and nursing homes.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services, there are 361,145 work-age Oklahomans with some sort of disability. Among this group, the employment rate is 38.2 percent, compared with a 74.5 percent rate among those without disabilities.

Likewise, in 2005 more than one-fourth – or 143,594 – of Oklahomans living below the poverty level were disabled.

Robyn Thorne, Oklahoma State Department of Rehabilitation Services counselor in Tahlequah, said that although it is not perfect, the ADA has helped raise awareness about disability issues in general.

“I think it’s done a fairly good job in larger cities, with the resources to really address the problems,” said Thorne. “But it is probably less successful in smaller, more rural areas, that may not have the resources or understanding of what is really needed.”

She noted that the size of the employer could also determine how effective ADA regulations could be.

“It has definitely helped with large employers, but in many cases, not with small,” said Thorne. “Smaller companies aren’t forced to comply.”

Overall, though, Thorne thinks there have been many positive results stemming from this legislation.

“I think people are more aware of the needs of people with disabilities when they are opening and setting up their businesses,” she said.

Oklahoma State Department of Rehabilitation Services Director Linda Parker noted that even with any setbacks, the ADA has made several strides in benefiting the entire state.

“The ADA has helped everyone because everyone benefits when qualified people with disabilities go to work and participate fully in their communities,” said Parker. “Most of our clients who go to work are also paying taxes and are no longer relying on disability benefits and social services, which is a good thing for taxpayers and our state as a whole.”

For more information on the Americans With Disabilities Act, visit the U.S. Department of Justice Web site at www.usdoj.gov.

For more information on the Department of Rehabilitation Services, which provides employment, rehabilitation and educational services for disabled Oklahomans, visit www.okrehab.org, or call (800) 845-8476.

Contact Garron Marsh at gmarsh@tahlequahdailypress.com.

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