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SU Disability Rights Clinic Director Reflects on the ADA 30 Years Later

Courtesy of Michael Schwartz

The Director of the Disability Rights Clinic at Syracuse University’s Office of Clinical Legal Education says the American’s with Disabilities Act has helped.  However, he says we still have a long way to go.  Over the weekend marked the 30th Anniversary of the ADA.  Michael Schwartz is a Supervising Attorney and a Professor.  In terms of securing employment for those with disabilities, the unemployment rate remains at 1990 levels of 70%. 

Although, he says the ADA has altered perceptions and led to massive changes.

“… But, in terms of changing people’s attitudes and gaining the ability to ask for access to government services, to private businesses open to the public, like doctors and lawyers (it has).”

Schwartz is deaf himself and spoke to us through his interpreter and wife, Trisha.  He’s heard frequently at the clinic from individuals who have had difficulty finding legal representation.

“If you go to a private attorney and you ask them to provide… for a deaf person… a sign language interpreter, there are a number of attorneys that will balk at that request because it has to come out of their own pocket.  And a lot of them ask deaf people to bring their own interpreter and that’s illegal.”

Schwartz adds that lawyers who do so could face fines or injunctive relief.

”An attorney in Rochester a few years ago who refused to provide a deaf person an interpreter and the deaf person complained to the US Department of Justice.  And the Department of Justice has the jurisdiction over the ADA, in particular cases, and the Justice Department investigated and they prosecuted that attorney.  He had to pay a fine and he had to pay the deaf person damages.”

He draws a parallel to the ADA of 1990 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in that they will always likely be works in progress.


Schwartz thinks the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act is about to be expanded by recognizing the millions of people with the long-term side effects of COVID-19. 

“People don’t realize that the Coronavirus is disabling millions of people… it’s creating health conditions that are going to be long-term.  Even after they’ve recovered from the initial illness, they have problems that they’re going to start seeing more and more.”

Schwartz adds the complications from COVID-19 include heart, lung, brain fog and blood circulation problems.  The pandemic has also presented a problem to those who rely on reading lips to communicate how they’re feeling.

“So, we’ve seen as a solution for that is the face shield or a see through mask, you know, plastic.  But, a lot of places don’t have those see through masks, the face shields.  So, that’s an additional barrier to people who have visual communication.”

The professor who is also a supervising attorney says another barrier he’s heard about during the pandemic are deaf refugees not being able to communicate at local hospitals.  He says they claim they are not provided with effective interpreters when they visit.  This week marks the 30th Anniversary of the ADA.