from today's Democrat: Tallahassee Democrat Published: July 23, 2010 20 years later, ADA continues to serve those with disabilities By Elizabeth M. Mack DEMOCRAT STAFF WRITER Tiffany Wilson was born with rubella and never had sight in her right eye. Growing up in Laguna Hills, Calif., she attended school with other children who were not visually impaired. She sat in class unable to take notes and basically had to learn to remember everything the teacher said. At night her sister Gina would read the textbooks to her. For important assignments, she relied a lot on Gina to write or type assignments as she dictated. "If I could be completely independent, I would have (been)," she said. However, in high school Wilson was a member of the track team and graduated from Cerritos High School in 1982 with honors. "No one paid me any special attention," she said. "Back then, you just made it. I always just went along with the way things were. I think it would've been hugely different if the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) had been around then." Wilson will be one of the hundreds in Tallahassee to participate Monday in the March of Opportunity celebrating the 20th anniversary of the ADA's enactment. "I'm so thrilled that it has lasted for 20 years," Wilson said. "Through the years, it's been amended to better serve. They wrote it and stood by it - and for that I'm very proud. And 20 years from now, as situations come up, I know it will be amended to continue to serve everyone. It's just beautiful." Melanie Etters, Agency for Persons with Disabilities communications director, said the march from Park Avenue down Monroe Street to the Capitol courtyard, is hosted by a partnership of disabilities organizations. The event starts at 10:30 a.m. On July 26, 1990, the ADA was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. Its purpose was to protect the rights of people with disabilities - a mandate put in place to stop discrimination in any form and allow equal access to the same rights and privileges as people without disabilities. "The ADA has brought access to transportation, businesses and new technologies for people with disabilities. Classroom inclusion has opened doors for children with disabilities so they can prepare for their future and join the workforce," said Linda Parnell, chief of field services of the Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. Parnell said the agency is "committed to helping people with disabilities find meaningful careers and is proud to celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the ADA." Wilson, 46, came to Tallahassee in July 2006 to further her education after being denied a teaching position in Jacksonville because of her disability. She attended Florida State University and received her masters in visual disabilities. She is now the senior rehabilitation specialist with the Florida Division of Blind Services. "I enjoy what I do," she said. "I was a child with a visual impairment and I know how they feel. I think it's great that the department for the visually impaired hire people who are visually impaired, because we get it. And it helps the parent to see too that their child can be successful and have the same opportunity that everyone else has." David Hand, job developer for the Florida Division of Blind Services, believes discrimination in the workplace is something that the ADA could still improve on. "There's a lot of ignorance and prejudice," Hand said. "Employers are afraid of accidents at work and increases in insurance, but they can treat a person with disabilities like they treat any other employee. And that's all that people with disabilities want in the work place. They want to be seen for their abilities and not for what they can't do." Bryan Vaughan, 47, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1992. He has been legally blind since the end of 2001 due to optic neuritis. Vaughan also faced workplace discrimination, losing his job in 2004 after serving as a counselor at a correctional institution for three years. He said he lost faith in the ADA, having cited the law to protect his employment and yet was still dismissed. "A state agency official told me that they have sovereign immunity and because they were a state agency they didn't have to abide by federal law," Vaughan said. "That really put a bad taste in my mouth. It blew my self-esteem out of the water." In 2007, Vaughan received a letter from the Department of Justice admitting that his rights were violated. Vaughan is now the executive director for the Governor's Commission on Disabilities. "I never thought I would be in a position like this," he said. "My job now has reinvigorated my view of the ADA. I've been able to see firsthand the change from the Department of Justice and the government." Vaughan believes the focus has shifted in the last couple of years from a disabilities-right to a civil-rights issue. "Now is our time," he said. "People with disabilities can either come together now or we can sit back and miss the opportunity. I would like to get to the point where one day we won't need the ADA." The law is perhaps best known for the physical accommodations made in buildings and public facilities. "I think the physical accommodations in buildings need to be readdressed for individuals who use larger mobility devices such as electric wheelchairs, motorized scooters, and walkers, especially for more public access to rest rooms," said Lynn Picolo, senior counselor for the Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. "Also the number of parking spaces for people with disabilities should be increased and they should be close to the doors of the business and not down the street." However, several advocates at local agencies, such as Judith Barrett, Ability First executive director, believe positive change for people with disabilities will continue to happen by continuing to make a stand. "Over the past 20 years, things have gotten better," she said. "We have come a long way. One of our core services is encouraging our people to advocate for themselves and address systems change. Do not be afraid to tell your employer if you need equipment to help you continue to do your job. There's still that fear that they may lose their job or be looked over for a promotion. And that's something that we are here to help overcome." OTHER Disabilities Awareness Week EVENTS Ability First will host a forum for candidates in the upcoming elections at St. Paul's United Methodist Church on Monday from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Florida State University is hosting a Disabilities Awareness Week, with a continuous showing of "Invisible Voices" at Strozier Library. It starts at 10 a.m. Monday.