In 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protected people with "physical or mental impairments" from discrimination in the workplace, in schools and in the public sphere in general. In 2008, President George W. Bush signed an amendment to the law, further broadening the protections of the original legislation.
But a recent survey conducted by the Summit Independent Living Center, a Missoula-based nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities, shows the laws do not always go far enough.
The survey, which was taken by representatives from 29 area disability service providers like Missoula County Public Schools, Missoula Aging Services and Opportunity Resources, shows disabled Missoulians are often lacking the access and opportunities of their peers. Seventy percent of those who took the survey said local businesses and other public facilities "lack wheelchair ramps or have other barriers," while 78 percent reported it was "difficult" for their clients to participate in community events. The study also showed that 86 percent of service providers feel more support is needed for young people with disabilities to transition from high school to higher education or the workforce.
While Summit Media and Communications Specialist Justice Ender admits the survey draws from a relatively small sample size, he says the results still indicate local needs. He points to accessible pedestrian signals at crosswalks, which help the visually impaired safely cross the street, and accessible public transportation as two areas in need of improvement. He adds that the problems are not unique to the Garden City.
"This is a national issue," he says. "It's a matter of civil rights."
Imagine if you are in a wheelchair and you need to get to work, Ender says, but the bus you take to work doesn't have a functional wheelchair lift. "If you are black or a woman and someone told you you couldn't get on a bus, you'd know that was wrong," he says. "But this is sometimes the reality for people with disabilities."
Enders adds that while the ADA was undoubtedly a step toward equality, society has not yet seen its full implementation. It's something that will take time.
"People with disabilities represent the largest minority group in the country," he says. "But we've only had civil rights for 20 years."