Disability.Blog: The ADA and Claiming Disability

by Andy Imparato, Executive Director, AUCD

July 2, 2015

This month, as we reflect on 25 years of implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is easy to focus on the letter of the law and miss the larger message of this historic legislation. For me, the greatest value of the ADA has been its role in framing disability as a natural part of the human experience and branding discrimination against children and adults with disabilities as something that is unlawful, unnatural and unnecessary.

In July of 1990, I was a brand-new lawyer trying to cope with the early stages of bipolar disorder, a condition that has stayed with me to this day. Earlier that year, as a newlywed and a visiting student at Harvard Law School, I had experienced my first serious episode of depression. Seemingly overnight, I went from being a confident, outspoken law student to an insecure, scared, unmotivated shell of my former self. With help from my wife, Betsy, and others, I made it through law school and launched a career in public interest law.

I soon found my calling as a disability advocate and I learned to think of my disability as a positive differentiator; it gave me added credibility and gravitas in my chosen profession. I was proud to be a person with a psychiatric disability who was "out" as a professional and I felt welcomed by my colleagues with a variety of disabilities in Massachusetts and beyond.

The ADA made it easier for me to be open about my disability when I applied to work for Senator Tom Harkin on the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Disability Policy, and my mood disorder is something that has informed and motivated my work since I came to Washington for that job in 1993.

My experience with disability made me better as an attorney adviser at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; as the general counsel and director of policy at the National Council on Disability; as the president and chief executive officer of the American Association of People with Disabilities; as the disability policy director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; and in my current role as the executive director of the Association of University Centers on Disabilities.

In my more than two decades as a disability advocate at the national level, I have had the opportunity to connect with many people who have personal experience with depression, bipolar disorder and other non-apparent disabilities. It is sad to me that so many professionals, whom I have met in my travels, including those who work in the disability field, still do not feel comfortable being "out" with their disabilities at work. Even 25 years after the ADA, we still live in a society that too often equates "disability" with "inability" or "less than." We still define "disability" for purposes of federal benefits as an inability to "engage in substantial gainful activity."

In 2008, bipartisan champions in Congress had to amend the ADA to overturn Supreme Court decisions that had sought to restrict the law's protections to people with severe disabilities that cannot be controlled or managed with medication or other mitigating measures. Seemingly uncomfortable with the idea that people who have no significant impairment nonetheless experience discrimination at work based on the fears, myths and stereotypes that others associate with their conditions, the Supreme Court narrowed who could claim to have a "disability" for purposes of the ADA. Disregarding legislative history and the expertise of the federal agencies charged with enforcing the ADA, large majorities on the Supreme Court made it very difficult for people like me with chronic health conditions to use the ADA to challenge discrimination because our skills and accomplishments were being used against us on the issue of whether we were disabled enough to be covered by the law in the first place.

As we look forward to the second quarter century of enforcement, my wish is that more people will claim their disabilities at work and in school and that more people with and without disabilities will come to embrace the idea that disability is a natural, beautiful and essential aspect of the human experience. Rather than buying into the larger societal narrative that disabilities are inherently limiting, we have an opportunity to recognize that personal experience with disability can lead to greater personal strength, creative problem-solving, and a stronger connection to other populations who face discrimination at work, at school and in the community.

The inclusive definition of disability in the ADA, restored in 2008's ADA Amendments Act, prohibits discrimination against people with depression, anxiety, diabetes, epilepsy, cancer, dyslexia, Asperger syndrome, attention deficit disorder and heart disease. If everyone with these conditions and other non-visible disabilities were open about their conditions at work, the stigmas associated with many of these conditions would be diminished more quickly than they will be if people continue to keep their disabilities to themselves.

So, as we celebrate 25 years of the ADA, I encourage my colleagues with non-apparent disabilities to claim your disabilities and be "out at work" - and in general. Be "out" as a proud member of a beautifully diverse community. Define your disability as an asset, and do not let others define your disability for you. When we come together collectively around our disability identities, our community will be able to accelerate progress toward the ultimate vision of the ADA: equality of opportunity, full participation, self determination and economic self-sufficiency.

About the Guest Blogger

Andrew Imparato has served as executive director of the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD) since September, 2013. As a disability rights lawyer and policy professional with more than two decades of experience in government and advocacy roles, Imparato has worked with bipartisan policymakers to advance disability policy at the national level in the areas of civil rights, workforce development and disability benefits. Prior to coming to AUCD, he was senior counsel and disability policy director for Senator Tom Harkin on the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Before that, he spent 11 years as president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, a national membership organization working to grow the political and economic power of the disability community. Imparato's perspective is informed by his personal experience with bipolar disorder.

Since joining AUCD, a national network of over 100 university-based programs that conduct research, training and advocacy to improve the quality of life of children and adults with disabilities, Imparato has helped the organization broaden the scope of its advocacy and expand its leadership capacity. Imparato is currently serving on two bipartisan panels developing recommendations for reform of the Social Security Disability Insurance program and has spearheaded a national "Six by '15" campaign designed to leverage this year's milestone anniversaries of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to focus public attention on the areas where the disability community wants to see more progress. This campaign has been endorsed by 160 disability organizations and the website is www.sixbyfifteen.org.

Imparato's work has been recognized by the Secretaries of Health and Human Services and Transportation, the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce, the National Council on Independent Living, the National Association of the Deaf, and the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation. He has testified nine times before Committees of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and has been interviewed on a wide range of disability issues by national television, radio and print media. He cultivates grassroots activism on social media and is known for seeking out and mentoring emerging leaders with disabilities. He co-authored articles that have been published in the Stanford Law and Policy Review and the Milbank Quarterly and wrote a chapter on the Supreme Court's disability rulings in The Rehnquist Court:  Judicial Activism on the Right (Hill & Wang 2003). He has been an adviser on accessibility, recruiting and corporate social responsibility to Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner, Walmart and other leading businesses. Imparato graduated summa cum laude from Yale College and with distinction from Stanford Law School. He lives in Baltimore with his wife, historian Elizabeth Nix, Ph.D., and their 16 year-old son Nicholas. Their older son, Gareth, is a writer in Los Angeles.

Originally posted in Disability.Blog, the official blog of Disability.gov.