15 Jul 2010

Juli Paini, the director for the City of Indianapolis Office of Disability Affairs, shares her thoughts on the Americans with Disabilities Act.

I was a student at Indiana University when Congress passed the ADA. The ADA received a lot of attention when President Bush signed it into law and I began to notice that people were more aware of people with disabilities.

The ADA helped raise my comfort level talking about my disability, as well as the comfort level of the people around me. While I had always adapted to the situations that faced me as a person with rheumatoid arthritis, the law established a civil rights framework of legal protections that had not previously been available to me and others with disabilities.

After I graduated from IU, I entered law school at IU-Bloomington. My motivation to pursue a legal career was definitely influenced by my disability. I knew there were people – with and without disabilities – who needed access to quality legal services and someone to advocate on their behalf. After passing the bar, I practiced law for several years. When the opportunity arose ten years ago to direct the City of Indianapolis’ ADA Program, I took it immediately.

Indianapolis already had an effort in place relative to access and inclusion before the ADA was signed into law. Mayor Hudnut established the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Disability, which is still in effect today. Peter Bisbecos, a talented lawyer, served as Mayor Goldsmith’s ADA coordinator during a construction boom in our city. The City put a priority to make access and inclusion a part of what we do. It’s a bipartisan approach that has carried through several administrations and continues to this day. In fact, the National Organization on Disability recognized Indianapolis with its 2009 “Accessible America” award, a tribute to this collective work.

In all of our projects, we look at access and inclusion in a holistic way. Whether it’s employing audible signals for the visually impaired, or creating mentorship opportunities, or including people with disabilities when we define diversity, the perception of people with disabilities and how we integrate the ADA is evolving.

Initially, everyone thought of the ADA in terms of physical access. As the years have gone by, we’re now looking at the ADA in terms of its significance to the issue of employment, and how that affects any other independence that the act brings. Economic independence helps people enjoy the physical independence.

People with disabilities – and the ADA – have come a long way since this landmark legislation became a part of our lives. As we look to the future, we still have much more to do. I hope the Indianapolis model will help other communities realize that they can be at the forefront of accessibility and inclusion, and do it in a creative and bipartisan way.

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