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ADA25 keynote

L. Scott Lisner, the ADA coordinator and 504 compliance officer for The Ohio State University, delivers the keynote address for the ADA25 Celebration Series.

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ADA25 Celebration Series keynote highlights history of accessibility and inclusion in America

Ohio University’s Athens Campus community concluded its celebration of the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act Oct. 27 with a keynote address from L. Scott Lissner that provided an overview of the past, present and future of the ADA. 

Lissner is the ADA coordinator and 504 compliance officer for The Ohio State University and a recognized expert in the fields of accessibility and disability policy. 

Beginning nearly 5,000 years ago and working forward to today, Lissner’s keynote gave insight into the journey from exclusion to accessibility. He pointed out that in the United States there were exclusionary laws in place that would allow business owners to legally remove someone with a disability from their restaurants or stores. In addition, until the 1970s public schools could legally exclude students with disabilities. 

Lissner then told the story of Judy Heumann, a child in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1960s who had reached the age of 6 and was ready to be enrolled in public school. She also happened to use a wheelchair.   

“Judy’s mother took her to enroll, and the school’s principal told her mother that her daughter was a fire hazard,” Lissner said. “So, her mother volunteered to attend school every day and ensure Judy would not be a fire hazard in the case of an evacuation. 

“In college, Judy studied to be a teacher and applied to teach in New York City,” Lissner continued. “After being hired through the mail and showing up for her physical, the doctor told her that she could not teach because she was in a wheelchair. So she sued the school district and became a teacher.” 

Though Heumann began her career as the first person in a wheelchair to teach in New York City, she continued her journey as a disability rights activist, eventually serving during the Clinton administration as the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services at the U.S. Department of Education. 

Lissner continued his discussion on the various legislative and judicial advances that helped the United States slowly move toward accessibility and inclusion for all. 

“In 1973, the Rehabilitation Act, including Section 504, was passed,” Lissner said. “It was 35 words long and said that if you take federal dollars, you cannot discriminate on the basis of disability; you must provide equal access to programs, benefits and services to qualified individuals with disabilities. But, the problem with 35 words is that they are hard to enforce.”

The then-named Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which had just completed writing what was to become Title IX, was tasked with developing the equal protection regulations for those with disabilities. It was during this time that the idea of “reasonable accommodation” was introduced. 

Fast forward to 1990, and the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, which covered private businesses that were previously excluded from disability-related legislation because they did not receive federal funding. It was a move to pass a broader piece of true civil rights legislation, Lissner said.  

He also touched on the idea of universal design, which involves designing environments and technology with the widest possible audience in mind. 

To conclude, he recognized that moving to a future that involves accessibility and inclusion for all is a long process, quoting another professional: “It is time to move beyond the letter of the law and to the spirit of the law; to shift the focus from redressing human and environmental problems through remedial design to preventing problems through holistic design.”  

The ADA25 Celebration Series was a month-long series of events in October designed to raise awareness and educate the University and Athens communities about disability and accessibility. The celebration, which was organized by the Presidential Advisory Council for Disability and Accessibility Planning and the Athens City Commission on Disabilities in conjunction with several offices and colleges on campus, provided students, faculty, staff and community members with the opportunity to learn more about the ADA and its impact. 

To watch the full ADA25 Celebration Series keynote address, click here.