Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Not There Yet

The death of President George H. W. Bush has prompted discussion of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which he signed into law during his time in office. The former director of the National Council on Disability described the ADA as “in effect the Civil Rights Act for people with disabilities in the United States.” It promised access to public spaces and an end to discrimination.

There’s no question that the ADA has improved life for people with disabilities. There’s also no question that we still have a long way to go, perhaps especially when dealing with poorly understood disabilities such as chemical illness. There’s no exhaustive list of disabilities covered under the ADA. Instead, it applies to conditions that substantially limit one or more life activities. A webpage on employment law provides a list of 25 and states that “If any of these above tasks are affected by your multiple chemical sensitivities, then you probably qualify as having a disability under the ADA.” The Job Accommodation Network offers suggestions for accommodating people who react to chemicals in the workplace. 

Unfortunately, qualifying for accommodations and receiving them are two very different things. On a regular basis I read the accounts of people with chemical illness fighting hard to stay in work situations which are making them sicker by the day. Although public buildings such as schools, doctor’s offices, restaurants, hotels, theaters, grocery stores, and shopping malls are all directed to comply with the ADA, access for people with chemical sensitivities tends to be limited and problematic.

It’s unfortunate that sometimes change only comes when forced, but however it comes, progress is welcome. The city of Detroit was ordered to pay an employee $100,000 for failing to address her ongoing reactions to a co-worker’s perfume, and within a week, according to the book The Case Against Fragrance, the city instituted a fragrance-free policy in all its workplaces. The Labor Law Center notes that it also added this to its ADA Handbook:  “Our goal is to be sensitive to employees with perfume and chemical sensitivities. Employees who are sensitive to perfumes and chemicals may suffer potentially serious health consequences. In order to accommodate employees who are medically sensitive to the chemicals in scented products, the City of Detroit requests that you refrain from wearing scented products, including but not limited to colognes, after-shave lotions, perfumes, deodorants, body/face lotions, hair sprays or similar products. The city of Detroit also asks you to refrain the use of scented candles, perfume samples from magazines, spray or solid air fresheners, room deodorizers, plug-in wall air fresheners, cleaning compounds or similar products. Our employees with medical chemical sensitivities thank you for your cooperation.”

Churches must comply with portions of the ADA, but are exempt from other provisions unless their buildings are used by covered organizations. If your church isn’t forced to comply, should it do so anyway? A Christianity Today posting argues in the affirmative for two basic reasons: all people are of equal worth and deserve inclusion, and the church is stronger when it welcomes and respects everyone. The president of the nonprofit organization RespectAbility notes that if people with disabilities aren’t welcomed in a church, their family members may also be unlikely to attend. She notes that one in five Americans has a disability and that 52% of Americans have a loved one who is disabled. She states, “It is a massive loss for churches if they don’t have people with disabilities in their congregation.”

I’m grateful for the work that President Bush did to advance the cause of the disabled and I look forward to seeing accessibility increase. As Bush said when he signed the ADA into law, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

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