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May 14, 2015

ADA affects perceptions of young people with disabilities

Younger people with disabilities, who grew up in a world where the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act was already in force, may not feel as connected to the disability community or traditional advocacy organizations, noted a May 4 panel here titled “We Are the ADA Generation.”

But the panelists — some of them Pitt students or graduates — told this National Council on Disability quarterly meeting that community was still necessary and achievable.

“Just as with other historic, landmark legislation,” said moderator Gabe McMorland, a recent Pitt urban studies graduate who lost much of his sight a few years ago at age 19, “we lay these foundations of what can be … but there’s still a lot of work to be done. We need to tackle the technology challenges, the political/legal challenges and the cultural challenges all at the same time. Culturally, we all need to raise our expectations for each other and the world around us.”

McMorland cofounded the local Accessibility Meetup, which alternates monthly happy hours with presentations from people working to design and build a more accessible world. “Things like sports and arts need to be accessible too,” he noted. “Some of the major websites and software out there is still not accessible. We need to push that.”

Others had success stories to report, such as Dan McCoy, a Pitt sophomore and a Paralympics gold medalist in sled hockey in the most recent competition in Sochi, Russia.

McCoy also competed in the world championships of sled hockey on May 3. “It was the first time a championship was televised internationally, which means the world to everyone in disabled sports and sports everywhere.”


Jonathan Duvall, a School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences doctoral student in rehabilitation sciences and a founding member of the campus group Students for Disability Advocacy, noted that the ADA and other federal rules still can be improved and updated. He decried Social Security disability benefit regulations that can hold back those with disabilities. Duvall suffered a spinal cord injury while sledding during his junior year.

He has since returned to school, completing an internship at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, where he does research as a student. He eventually hopes to be a faculty member and professional researcher there. Yet rules governing federal benefit eligibility create a “disincentive to work” he said: Higher paying jobs may cause people to rise above the maximum income threshold and lose funding for attendant care. “Somebody who needs 15 hours of attendant care and somebody that needs 24/7 attendant care a week have the same income limit,” he noted.

“That’s very disconcerting to me,” said Josie Badger, statewide coordinator for the I Want to Work project ( and cofounder of the Pennsylvania Youth Leadership Network and Children’s Hospital Advisory Network for Guidance and Empowerment (CHANGE).

“I need 24-hour care,” costing $80,000-$90,000 a year, noted Badger, who also requires a ventilator, wheelchair and service dog.

Yet, she allows, the continuing fight for better accommodations and broader rights may feel less important to younger people with disabilities. Today’s young adults grew up with individual education plans in public schools that helped to guarantee equal access to general education, as well as needed supports. “They see themselves as not having a community of people with disabilities,” said Badger. “They think they’re all on their own. More than ever, because we have youth in the workforce and doing amazing things, we also must realize we need to teach them what it means to advocate.”

Matt Berwick, independent living supervisor for Three Rivers Center for Independent Living, who had a spinal cord injury at age 15, proposed one solution. “The toughest part for us is that we’re young and we want to work,” he said. “I’d like to challenge the people … to include youth with disabilities in your organization.”

Recent Peters Township High School graduate Rachel Campion, whose hearing loss inspired her to join the youth board of CHANGE, said, “The best way to advocate for me is that I’m able to reach you on my phone, by email, all the time. We are technology monsters,” she said of young people.

Campion will enroll in West Virginia Wesleyan University this fall for nursing. Despite the partial disconnect between seasoned advocates and the current ADA generation, Campion acknowledged: “To try to imagine my life without the ADA is mind-blowing.”

—Marty Levine 

men's 100 meters for blind persons