Standing on the steps of Sproul Hall stairs, Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities wanted to make sure that his peers would be heard Friday.
“What do we want?” he yelled in his microphone while a sign language interpreter translated his question.
“Civil rights,” the crowd answered.
“When do we want it?”
Nearly 100 people gathered on upper Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus Friday at noon to celebrate the 11th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a legislation that ensures equal opportunity for people with disabilities in employment, public services and accommodations, commercial facilities and transportation.
“We are here to celebrate us, what we’ve accomplished and how far we’ve come, said Paul Longmore, a disabled professor at San Francisco State University. “Four decades ago on this campus, nobody thought about disability issues. Disability issues are now unavoidable.”
To the speakers, however, the ADA’s anniversary was above all a chance to call the local community to keep with a struggle that has just begun.
“We have more rights than we once did,” said Jan Garrett, director of the Center for Independent Living. “But the truth is that we still need to have many more and we need to be vigilant about keeping the ones we had.”
Despite the ADA, participants said disabled people’s right for equality is often not respected. Accessibility is still not systematic and issues such as equal access to education and employment remain poorly addressed, they said.
“I would like to think that we’ve made some progress,” said Walter Park, director of the San Francisco Mayor’s office on disability. “We have got fewer people in the workforce with severe disabilities now than we had 11 years ago.”
Full access to employment is currently one of the most sensitive issues for the disabled community. Last February, the Supreme Court ruled to limit the enforcement of the ADA ‘s Title I, which guarantees equal access to employment for all disabled people. The ruling was made in the scope of the so-called Garrett case, which involved two state employees discriminated against in their jobs because of their disabilities.
“It’s outrageous that the highest court in our land is so ignorant and never understood the point and the process of ADA,” said Larry Paradis, director of Disability Rights Advocates. “The court needs to understand that ADA is a promise of equality that benefits everybody.”
According to Park, the government’s lack of commitment in the protection of disability rights is not limited to federal institutions. Locally, he said, there are barriers too.
“Way too many people in the government do not know how to implement the ADA; they don’t know that they’re not doing it,” he said, referring to the situation in San Francisco.
One of the main problems, he said, is the staff’s lack of training. While 85 percent of the clients of San Francisco’s shelters have some kind of mental health disability, he said, many of the people working there haven’t been adequately prepared to address their needs.
Greater awareness on the challenges they face every day, respect and inclusion, several speakers said, is what disabled people ultimately seek.
“The access ramp, the Braille markers, the interpreters and all the other infrastructures of freedom that we campaign for are just pieces of what is an extraordinary vision of a different kind of society,” said Longmore. “We are the ultimate test of America’s commitment to diversity.”