Early this month, when the COVID-19 pandemic still seemed like a relatively nebulous threat to the United States, Michael Gamel-McCormick addressed the potential threat as it applies to a certain segment of the population.
“How many people with disabilities are being considered when we’re planning for sharing information, getting supplies ahead of time and making sure that healthcare workers, direct-service workers and all of those individuals know what to do in the case of that?” he said.
The question posed by Gamel-McCormick during the March 3 Disability and Mental Health Summit hosted by state Rep. Dan Miller, D-Mt. Lebanon, is illustrative of obstacles that remain 30 years after the federal Americans With Disability Act became law.
As disability policy director for U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and a longtime rights advocate, Gamel-McCormick spoke at the summit about how the ADA came to be and what still must be done to strengthen its intended provisions.
Miller cited the efforts of Gamel-McCormick and others in helping to bring the landmark legislation to fruition.
“They were there in the rooms,” Miller said. “They were there for the negotiations. They were there for hard decisions that had to be made. They were witnesses and architects of history.”
Getting the ball rolling in Congress was then-U.S. Rep. Tony Coelho of California, who also spoke at Miller’s event. Among Coelho’s colleagues providing substantial support were Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, for whom Gamel-McCormick eventually worked, and Rep. Steve Bartlett of Texas.
“This was a piece of legislation that was moving forward in the way that you were taught that it should move forward. You get a good piece of legislation. You get a good coalition. You get bipartisanship, and it moves,” Gamel-McCormick recalled, but some sectors of the population worked to put on the brakes. “They slowed it down enormously because they were fearful of what it would mean to have a law that said you have to provide equal access to people with disabilities.”
He referenced a late high-profile politician from North Carolina.
“Some of the really hard parts of ADA are when Sen. Jesse Helms steps up and he says, ‘I’m not lettin’ this pass, because I’m scared of people with HIV. And I’m going to make sure that this particular bill does not go through,’” Gamel-McCormick said. “Now, I will be honest with you. What happened around that particular issue is that we folded. We said this does not cover people with HIV.”
That situation, he said, was rectified by the passage of the ADA Amendment Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008, the year of Helms’ death. Among the amendment’s provisions, it clarifies that an impairment that is episodic or in remission qualifies as a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.
A dozen years later, Americans with disabilities continue to face numerous challenges, according to Gamel-McCormick.
“Not everything got into the ADA,” he said about the 1990 law. “One of the things that’s missing and one of the things that’s a problem right now is the right of private action. We do not have the right to sue anybody if they violate the ADA.”
He further addressed issues in other facets of American society, including air travel, access to polling places, and access to home- and community-based services provided by governmental entities.
Regarding the COVID-19 crisis and emergency situations in general, Gamel-McCormick gave the example of then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s use of an American sign language interpreter for his 2012 news conferences regarding the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy.
“She was always there because they were making sure that access to information was available,” Gamel-McCormick reported, as an ASL interpreter communicated his message at the summit. “We need screen-readable information. We need plain-language information. We need American sign language interpreters for every press conference and video that goes out.”
He recalled Harkin also used ASL as he spoke on the Senate floor the day ADA became law, predicting its effect on a new generation: “Anybody born after 1990 is going to have higher expectations. I will live in the community. I will be part of the community. I will be an active member, and I will have rights in the community.”
“I think he’s right,” Gamel-McCormick said. “We have a whole set of 30-year-olds who were born with disabilities or who have acquired disabilities over the past 30 years, who have extraordinarily high expectations. And actually, they’re not really extraordinarily high. They’re the expectations we have of a person who lives in America.”