OT professor discusses advances, along with work still to be done, as the country marks the 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To celebrate Disability Pride Month and the 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in July, OSC spoke with Dr. Diane Smith, a Professor of Occupational Therapy, about her interests in healthcare policy and issues of empowerment for people with disabilities. She discussed current legislation and accessibility for the disability community, including advocacy for the often-overlooked population. 

What initially got you interested in focusing on disability issues?

My interest in disabilities began when my mother had a stroke after the birth of my twin sister and me. Her stroke resulted in right-side paralysis. Pre-ADA, my mother had difficulty accessing places in her environment, and the stigma surrounding disabilities only made it more challenging. Her frustration resonated around the time I was 10, and it sparked my interest in the field as I wanted to make things better for her. Occupational therapists look at the person, their environment, and how an individual can achieve their desired goals in that space. I now advocate for changes in society to increase accessibility for all persons with and without a disability. 

This year marks the 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. What is the background of this law, and what rights does it protect?

The ADA was signed in 1990 by President George H. W. Bush after a call to prohibit discrimination for people with disabilities. The disability rights community really coalesced in the 1970s because of the civil rights movement. There are five titles to the ADA law: employment, public transportation, public facilities, communications, and miscellaneous provisions. It grants people with disabilities equal access and opportunity as those without disabilities. Alongside the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in federally funded organizations, the ADA goes a step further to protect disabled individuals in all public and private businesses, whether they receive federal funding or not.

What are some of the impacts of the law that you’ve seen implemented?

Different federal offices guide implementation of the ADA, so its impact varies. There are more visible things, like ramps and grab bars in a bathroom, which are now commonplace. However, there are many inaccessible buildings, especially in an older city like Boston which has a lot of historical buildings that get around accessibility standards.

Describe public perception and awareness of the ADA. 

The ADA received bipartisan support because almost everybody has someone they know with a disability, or they have a disability themselves. In fact, one in four people have a disability, and it’s the country’s largest minority group. If people in your life have a disability, you likely have more interest in the law and a greater desire to advocate for its principles. 

To what degree does the public understand and recognize disability issues?

I don't want to speak for the general population, but I think people don't consider disabilities until they know someone who has one. I would like to think that because kids with disabilities are more integrated in schools, and it’s not as unusual anymore. Younger and future generations have a greater understanding and awareness of people with disabilities.

Is the IHP involved with disability issues?

For some of our doctoral capstone projects, we partner with the Boston Commission on Disabilities and the Institute for Human Centered Design, two organizations that evaluate facilities and look at ways to increase accessibility and inclusion. Projects with the Commission look at the intersection of sustainability, accessibility, and residential facilities and how they train architects to design spaces which serve individuals with and without disabilities. Our OTD students have worked with the city of Cambridge to create more accessible and sustainable transportation, such as adaptive blue bikes and transportation with a lower carbon imprint. The Institute for Human Centered Design involves people with disabilities who are "user experts" who partner with our doctoral students and work on projects to improve accessibility of the MBTA and the Museum of Science.

On campus, I've had students work with [IHP COO] Denis Stratford to survey accessibility of the IHP’s buildings. Many are older buildings that can always be improved, and I think there appears to be a concerted effort to increase accessibility across campus. And Luella Benn, the Director of Accessibility Resources and Wellness in OSAS, is a wealth of information. She's worked with a number of our students on ADA-related issues such as crafting accommodations for students with disabilities or facilitating focus groups that discuss disability as a diversity issue. 

What are some questions you address with your OTD students in your course, Disability and Society? 
It’s a chance to talk about disability rights and history, starting with disability institutionalization to ADA legislation and the progress it has made. We examine issues like disability access to education, health care, and employment. We talk about emergency preparedness, such as when there are floods, tornadoes, or hurricanes, and how evacuation practices do not always accommodate disabilities. For instance, how does someone with a wheelchair safely exit a building during a fire? 

We also look at the intersectionality of disability, for instance, in regard to someone who is a wheelchair user, a person of color, and queer. How do these qualities build off each other, and what levels of disparity or inequity are prevalent? It's really a course anyone can benefit from. I tell students the focus of the work I do isn't about how to "treat" people and make them like they were before their disability. It's to say, "How do we make society more accessible to them?" It's not so much fixing the person; it's fixing that situation.

What would you like people to come away with from Disability Pride Month?
A big part of its focus is to increase awareness. Disabilities are the one minority group people don't think about but can join at any moment. The more we talk about disabilities, the more people are exposed to how this community is so prevalent in their life. The fact we are speaking about disabilities encourages me that our society will become further aware of the disability community, address their needs, and foster richer inclusion. Conversations move things along. I think this in one step in moving disability equity along, too. 

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