(In Becoming *That* Person, I mentioned I felt the ADA had been mutilated and Omniwomnbat was surprised. I promised an explanation.)
The Americans with Disabilities Act was a bipartisan piece of legislation that was passed after compromise and concession on all sides. While it does stipulate deadlines for various types of access to be accomplished, the actual regulations are not within its text nor are terms like "reasonable accommodation" concretely defined. Furthermore, the more vagaries in a law the more the court system can "interpret" it.
So, we have this law that was passed based on compromise only outlining deadlines and abstract goals with vague language and enforcement left up to the whim of the executive branch and the interpretation of judges. While the goal was noble and necessary – to provide a means for disabled people to become full participants in American society, the law's shortcomings make it less effective.
Let me give you an example. Back in 2007, I decided I wanted a cellular phone I could actually entirely operate independently, so I began research. Turns out that there are regulations – The Telecommunication Act – that govern this. They said that cellular phone service providers had to make all reasonable efforts to offer phones usable by disabled people. Unfortunately, those regulations were not clear as to which disabilities, how many phones needed to be usable, and what effort was considered reasonable. Moreover, individuals were not allowed to file lawsuits to force compliance. The only recourse was to file a complaint with a federal agency that was not currently enforcing any part of the regulations. Therefore, cellular service providers were doing things like stripping away accessibility features to make space for graphical content. They were allowed to order cell phone manufacturers to exclude accessibility so that one line of phones progressively became less usable by blind folks. I eventually had to buy a smart phone with more functionality than I needed and third party software costing $300.00 in order to be able to actually enter contacts in my phone. (Now I have an iPhone requiring me to only turn on the built-in screenreader.)
Phrases such as reasonable accommodation, undue financial burden, and even what constitutes a disability have come under much scrutiny. Rather than giving some simple formula such as if a restroom renovation project costs $100,000.00 to do 3 stalls, the extra $5,000.00 to make 1 stall accessible is reasonable. However, if re-doing an entrance to a store costs $500 to accomplish, but electronically opening doors cost $1,000 for a company in the red, then perhaps it is not reasonable. (And, yes, I'm making up these numbers.)
Over the years, the court system has in fact ruled to limit what is considered a disability under the ADA. In the beginning, Attention Deficit Disorder, for example, was included and I know at one point it was specifically excluded. There has also been a huge debate over HIV and addiction.
The ADA is unfortunately an excellent example of the problems in our legislative system for any bill with concrete language would never pass because of pressure exerted by special interest groups. The true solution is to have a system where common sense can rule the day, but that's not going to happen. Besides, whose common sense?
The pragmatic answer to what needs to happen has three parts. First, simplify regulations. Next, help provide means of accomplishing it that are cheap yet effective with grants and free educational opportunities. and Most importantly, rather than making accessibility an optional thing with lots of loopholes to avoid compliance, make it an expected requirement.
We truly need strong leadership from the executive branch. Throw out the reams of regulations and insist they be understandable by your average 18-year-old. For example, web site accessibility for blind and visually impaired people could be summed up as, "If you wish to do business with or have traffic from any person living within the United States, then your site must work with the top 2 screenreaders and screen magnifiers." How to accomplish that should be taught in web developer classes. For a company that cannot afford to do it now, compliance would be required if any changes are made to the site. Grants would be available to help companies that are struggling.
Think that's too harsh? Okay, fine, companies only need to comply if they plan on doing business with the federal government. I'm sure someone working in New Orleans' Federal building has order something for the office from Walmart's site.
Accessibility has become this massive industry made unnecessarily complicated. Even ordering accessible signage for restrooms is nuts. There are some cute and cheap ways companies could make accessible signage. I believe there must be Braille, high contrast colors, and raised letters of a certain minimum size. With the exception of the Braille, which is not hard to learn by the way, your average 10 year old could probably make such a sign.
I have come to believe the reason accessibility has become such a complicated and convoluted beast is primarily because people want to find a way to avoid doing it. Ever tried to tell an eight-year-old a rule? If you want them to obey it, you put it in a few simple words. The more you say the more they will find a way to wiggle out of compliance.
Finally, consider this. You walk into a store to buy a pack of gum. You, a non-disabled person, assume many things – you will be able to enter and exit the store, the gum will have print identifying it, the sales person will be able to interact with you, and you will be able to identify your own money or be able to use the credit card/ATM machine. How come disabled people have to wonder if they will be able to do these things?