The Intersection of Age and Ability

This month we celebrate the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). You may not hear a lot about it—we tend to make a bigger fuss over milestone anniversaries, like last year's quarter-century celebration. But 24 percent of adults living in King County already report that they are limited by a physical, emotional, or mental problem, or have a health problem that requires use of equipment such as a cane, wheelchair, special bed, or special telephone. Twenty-seven percent of residents age 45–64 and 36 percent of residents age 65 or older report activity limitation. As our population ages, these percentages are likely to rise. The ADA becomes vital to more people every year.

The most common sources of limitation among King County residents age 65 and older are ambulatory difficulties, independent living limitations, and hearing problems. The Social Security Administration tells us that one in four of today's 20-year-olds will become disabled before age 67. Among those under 65, the most frequently self-reported limitations are cognitive difficulties, ambulatory difficulties, and independent living difficulties.

According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, at age 65, one out of three people has hearing loss. Hearing loss is the third most prevalent health issue in older adults, after arthritis and heart disease.

Who has a disability under the ADA?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the term "disability" generally refers to "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual." Major life activities may include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working. Limitations can result from mobility, visual, hearing and/or cognitive or hidden disabilities.

Whether a disability limits a major life activity can be a matter of perception. I know individuals who frequently face barriers in the community due to a disability (for instance, hearing loss) but do not consider themselves to be "disabled." Unfortunately, perceptions (and misperceptions) about disabilities lead a lot of people to miss the opportunity to receive accommodations that can significantly improve their experience at work and in the community.

What are reasonable accommodations?

The ADA states that people with disabilities must be able to obtain or enjoy "the same goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations" that are provided to other members of the public. While accommodations under the ADA can take many forms, some of the more common requests for public events are:

  • Special seating location
  • Wheelchair accessibility
  • Assisted listening devices
  • Sign language interpretation
  • Oral deaf interpreter
  • Accessible restroom
  • Event notice and/or program information in an alternate format

Whether or not an event notice includes an accessibility statement, please know that if you have a qualifying disability, you have a right to request an accommodation in order to participate in a public event. For instance, Title II of the ADA requires that local government entities must provide effective communication to persons with disabilities by providing auxiliary aids and services upon request and regardless of the meeting size.

Businesses that provide goods or services to the public—including stores, restaurants, bars, service establishments, theaters, hotels, recreational facilities, private museums and schools, doctors' and dentists' offices, and shopping malls—are required to modify their business policies, procedures, and facilities when necessary to serve customers with disabilities and take steps to communicate effectively with customers with disabilities. (Commercial facilities that do not provide goods or services directly to the public are only subject to the ADA's requirements for new construction and alterations.)

A call to action

The Americans with Disabilities Act is an "equal opportunity" law for people with disabilities. Like other civil rights legislation, it is vitally important that we honor and protect it, and use it when appropriate. Although the Act has been in effect for 26 years—and ample resources are available online for the entities governed by this law—too often the ADA is overlooked or disregarded. Disability rights, communication, and etiquette training is often inadequate. Many people aren't aware that the law applies to their building or services.

Aging network advocates can join with disability advocates and become more assertive about our rights. Here is my call to action:

  • If you have a qualifying disability and would benefit from an accommodation, request it.
  • If you are aware of a possible ADA violation, let it be known. Talk to the person in charge and help them learn. Refer them to the wealth of resources available through the Northwest ADA Center. I've also listed some resources below.
  • If you receive anything other than gracious service, ask for that person's manager's name. Help the manager learn about the ADA. (If it's a public entity with 50 or more employees, ask for the ADA coordinator's name.)
  • Persistent violations should be reported. In Seattle, you can ask a question or file a complaint with the Seattle Office for Civil Rights. Residents of suburban cities and towns in King County can contact the Washington State Human Rights Commission for guidance. In unincorporated King County, contact the King County Office of Civil Rights.

Resources

To learn more about the Americans with Disabilities Act and ways that we can increase accessibility, follow these links:


Contributor Molly Holmes is the chair of the Seattle-King County Advisory Council on Aging & Disability Services, which publishes AgeWise King County. Molly welcomes input from readers via e-mail (advisorychair@agewisekingcounty.org) as well as applicants for open positions on the council. For more information, visit www.agingkingcounty.org/advisory-council.

Photo credit: Photo at top shows the audience at the ADA 25th anniversary celebration at Westlake Park in July 2015, by Irene Stewart.

The Seattle-King County Advisory Council on Aging & Disability Services meets monthly, except January and October.

For information on joining the Advisory Council, visit our How to Join webpage or contact Aging and Disability Services planner Gigi Meinig at 206-684-0652 or gigi.meinig@seattle.gov.