The 22nd anniversary of the signing of Americans with Disabilities Act was celebrated Wednesday at the Fred Karl Hillsborough County Center building in downtown Tampa. Although the building dates from the early 1990's and is nearly 30 stories tall, a skyscraper by Floridian standards, it is nevertheless equipped with many ADA regulated accessible modifications. The locale was befitting to the public forum, which was organized by The Hillsborough County Board of Commissioner along with the Hillsborough County Alliance for Citizens with Disabilities to commemorate this landmark piece of legislation.
This year's theme was entitled “ADA: Innovation and Access."The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, was signed by then President George H. W. Bush. The milestone legislation established protection for a wide range of disabled individuals. Similar to Lindon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADA safeguards against discrimination by enacting legal obligations on the private sector employers, public and civic services and transportation. Although after 22 years the ADA has become so accepted as common sense that any irregularities in its implementation in public and private sectors is taken for granted.
However, according to the Hillsborough County ADA Liaison, Sandra Sroka, continued public awareness of the what the ADA embodies is still needed. She went on to say that "although there has been definite progress over the 22 years since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act into law; there still is lots that can be done and needs to be done.”
She went on to explain that the awareness from the general public is at the heart of an effectuating the ADA “People's attitudes and perceptions and sometimes myths and stereotypes about disability and people with disabilities...it's import to bring attention to the abilities of individuals with disabilities and to bring attention to the progress that we've made but where we still need to go.." The public forum was not about navel staring, it was about reflecting on the progress since the laws enactment and recognizing the achievements on a local and tangible level.
The event afforded an opportunity to formally acknowledge people and businesses that have made exceptional contributions to improving the lives of people with disabilities in Hillsborough County. The outstanding youth service award went to Joey’s Voice for Autism which promotes awareness of Autism Spectrum Disorders or ASD through family oriented events. Another award was presented to the Tampa Thunder for outstanding community service. The Tampa Thunder is a power wheelchair soccer club which was established in 2004 and has since gone on to win several competition awards.
A final award was given to Hyatt Hotels of Tampa under the category of outstanding accessible place for people. Hyatt Hotels have developed an employment program to aid learning impaired and physically disabled adults in learning the skills to be more successful in work while promoting independence. County Commissioner Kevin Beckner said that tax incentives for small businesses hiring more disabled employees could be beneficial for both parties involved. Beckner is also an advocate of a expanding the mentoring programs and technical training for children who may not be headed to college. The concept behind the proposed initiative is to collaborate with the school system in order to help prepare them for an independent working life. When asked about children with autism Beckner stated that there are programs in development which will facilitate learning applied skills for learning children with special disabilities like being trained in the culinary arts. He added that the long term goal is to discover and establish new public and private partnerships in conjunction with schools to aid these children with disabilities.
Tax incentives are a passive means the government can use to promote innovation and access to people with disabilities. Passing city or county ordinances is another way of promoting ADA’s innovation and access. Hillsborough County Commissioner, Sandra Murman said a gas station ordinance would be a simple and effective way to assist some people with disabilities. The ordinance would require a gas station or a convenient store annex to display a sticker with either a telephone number or other means of contacting the employees on the premises for assistance. Furthermore, if there are two or more attendants present the gas station would be obligated under law to assist the disabled customer.
A gas station ordinance illustrates how effective the ADA has evolved to accommodating some people with disabilities but it also shows the necessity for wider accommodations. The ADA seems to provide services and access to those people with a disability who are able to vocalize their needs. The gas station ordinance seems to make no provision for the deaf or hard of hearing nor other non verbal people, like people on the autistic spectrum. Additionally, innovation and access for deaf, hard of hearing and autistic children in schools reflects the need for continued improvement to the ADA as it stands now. Sroka, the Hillsborough County ADA Liaison, said the ADA is aware of the shortcomings and is focused on correcting those lacunas. She elaborated by acknowledging that when the ADA is discussed in the public arena it is often people with physical disabilities who garner the most attention. Those with intellectual, cognitive, mental disabilities or mental health issues are incumbent as a group as well as society as a whole, including those who are involved with the disability community, to bring awareness and understanding to the fact that the term disabilities refers to a broader range of individuals.