Face Masks: Does the ADA Give You Permission Not to Wear One?

A young man looks into camera wearing a blue face maskMore and more states and cities in America are implementing executive orders mandating the use of face coverings in public spaces — research has shown that the use of face coverings can significantly reduce the chance of exposure to COVID-19 and slow the spread of the virus. Exceptions can be made for people unable to use a mask due to their age and/or medical conditions, but how does that work, exactly? Do we need to carry cards proving our medical condition?

A lot of misinformation regarding the use of face coverings has been shared via social media, press and broadcast media. A couple of weeks ago, the Great Lakes ADA Center (in collaboration with the Southwest and Northwest ADA Centers) offered a session called “Face Coverings and the ADA” to discuss the application of the ADA to this issue as well as the various scenarios as they are playing out on the ground. The recording of the session is available, free of charge, and closed captioning and sign language interpreters were available.

View the recording here. 

Here’s an excerpt of what the session was all about: “Many states and local entities have implemented executive orders or mandates for the use of Face Coverings in both indoor and outdoor public spaces…The number of calls for technical assistance related to the use of Face Coverings to the ADA National Network have steadily risen over the past weeks as more mandates are issued and economies start to reopen. Join us for this session where we will discuss the application of the ADA to this issue as well as the various scenarios as they are playing out on the ground.”


The ADA Generation Speaks: Demanding Better Access to Mental Health

I am pleased to introduce Kit Aronoff as a guest blogger today. Kit is an Assistive Technology Coordinator at Temple University. She has a passion for inclusive technology, she advocates for disability rights issues centering on education, and she works part-time as a freelance tech journalist under the name Kit Englard — follow her on twitter @mathnskating.

by Kit Aronoff

When people ask me, “How old is the ADA?” It’s easy for me to come up with a number. The ADA and I are the exact same age. I’ve nicknamed anyone born in the 90’s as “ADA babies,” because we’ve had the unique privilege of never living in a world where we weren’t protected by this groundbreaking civil rights law.

The ADA has fundamentally changed the way disabled people are able to navigate society. Ask anyone you know who is older and his been disabled for a long time, they will tell you about the “pre-ADA days” when accessible transportation, employment, housing, education and social life was difficult — or impossible — to find. We ADA Babies have no idea, they’ll say.

In many ways, they’re right: when I went to college I was supported by a staff at the disability office, an office that hadn’t existed before the 1990s. The ADA changed the world, laying the groundwork and foundation which future generations can continue to build upon and one day, hopefully, achieve equality for people with disabilities. This aspect is often misunderstood. Like many civil rights issues, the common belief is that “Well, we passed the law. Nothing more to be done here.” Which is misguided.

The ADA starts to get murky when you introduce the idea of intersectionality. That intersection can be with race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and so on. But it can also be with other disability types. People who are blind and are a wheelchair user, or someone with chronic health conditions who is also deaf. A common, and often overlooked, aspect of this crossroads is mental health. Specifically, access to mental health services as a person with a physical disability. I can tell you firsthand: it isn’t easy.

It’s difficult to explain the complex systemic problems that can prevent access to mental health. Some of these include transportation, lack of medical insurance, and lack of providers with knowledge of issues that directly relate to disabilities.

As a DeafBlind woman who has a diagnosis of complex post traumatic stress disorder, I struggle with an eating disorder as well as an anxiety disorder. Finding a therapist that is confident in working with eating disorders and trauma can be challenging enough. Adding my DeafBlindness to the mix makes it nearly impossible. And try finding full access to materials used for in-patient or other structured treatment programs! That’s the area that’s been by far the hardest for me to navigate: in-patient or other structured treatment programs are very reluctant to provide full access to the materials used in groups and classes in an accessible format.

The reason I was given at one point when I was denied a request for accommodation was “intellectual property.” They claimed that by their producing it electronically or in braille for me would make it possible for me to steal their program. The second place cited that they didn’t really understand why I needed it. The worst was my most recent experience. I requested interpreters as well as braille, and I was denied on the basis of a HIPPA violation — which was a wildly incorrect assertion.

When something is inaccessible, we’re advised to “Self advocate!” I’ve spent my whole life — that’s 30 years now, remember — advocating for access to everything from the grocery store to my local synagogue. The long term toll of constantly self-advocating is burnout. Each time I’m denied feels like a little chip of my self-worth is falling away.

But what happens when you can’t self advocate? What if you’re in the ER for a psychiatric hospital, and you simply don’t have the mental or emotional energy to spare on self advocating? The truth is, people give up. They stop asking for help. Worse, they can start believing that they aren’t worth helping.

The first time my husband witnessed a horrible denial of accommodations, I started sobbing uncontrollably when we got home. He was shocked at my strong reaction. I had to walk myself back to a place of feeling worthy of friendship and care.

But to do that I, and anyone, needs to be in a good head space. When one is deep into a mental health condition that isn’t something they can rely on. A denial of accommodations is a huge neon billboard saying, “You’re not welcome here!” I struggle with self worth. I take rejection of accommodations hard. This isn’t a hypothetical, this can literally be life or death.

Society is judged by how we treat our most vulnerable. In the United States we deeply undervalue the worth of mental health professionals, and also the lives of people with disabilities. It is here where we must speak up for those who cannot do so themselves, and demand that accommodation requests be met in treatment centers and clinicians’ offices.

Everyone deserves equal access to mental health treatment, regardless of disability. It is my sincerest hope that this is an area where, 30 years from now, we can look back and say, “See? We did it.”


Celebrating 30 Years of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Beyond

woman using a wheelchair smiling while headed down a sidewalkAs we head into the ADA’s 30th anniversary, I would like to reflect on how we ensure we continue on the right path forward for people with disabilities. On July 26th, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act signed into law the equality of opportunity and full participation in society for disabled individuals; this went a long way in furthering the rights of this marginalized group, including access to buildings, education, employment, and government services. This law changed disability rights immensely, as now there was legal backing for so many who faced discrimination.

But the ADA did not cover everything, and the law did not eradicate microaggressions, prejudice, and violence against people with disabilities. There is still discrimination in hiring and receiving accommodations at work, and only 19% of disabled people are employed, compared to 66% of nondisabled people. People with disabilities are twice as likely to experience violence. Establishments often look for loopholes in the ADA to exclude disabled people from their business. And it wasn’t until the Affordable Care Act that insurers could not deny a person with a disability from signing up for healthcare.

There is hope that these injustices will become a memory as disabled people advocate for their rights and come together to enact change, as they always do. It was because of this activism that we have the Americans with Disabilities Act to begin with, and why we have the Affordable Care Act. It’s why we have the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which broadened the definition of disability in the context of the law to make sure more folks were protected under it. Advocates like Anita Cameron, Haben Girma, Dominick Evans, Alice Wong, and others bring activism to the forefront for a new generation online.

As leaders, both disabled and not, I passionately believe it is our duty to stand with those who stand for justice, and to lend our voice and platform for the betterment of all disabled people. Celebrating the ADA includes recognizing the work that went into the law and how many human rights groups came together to get it passed; we see human rights groups come together now in the fight for social justice. Celebrating is more than recognizing a victory – it’s about looking ahead to the next hurdle, and ensuring we go over it united.



The ADA Generation Speaks: Let’s Make ADA Education Part of the Core Curriculum

I am pleased to introduce Raven Wilson as a guest blogger today. Raven is a 24-year-old graduate student at Northern Illinois University studying Vision rehab and assistive technology. A self-proclaimed nerd, she likes everything from Harry Potter books to Marvel movies — and lucky for us, she enjoys creative writing, too! Here she is with a thought-provoking reflection on the 30-year anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

by Raven Wilson

Raven Wilson and her guide dog Dana.

One morning in 2016, my friend group decided to try a delicious-sounding breakfast buffet. When we arrived at the entrance we were greeted with “I’m sorry, animals aren’t allowed in the restaurant area,” by the hostess. Her tone was friendly with an edge of boredom. Our group was blind at various levels and I was the only one with a guide dog.

”She’s a service animal,” I explained, trying to shrug off my nervousness. I tilted the handle of my dog’s working harness up slightly so the hostess could see it. She was unimpressed. “We can’t allow animals where people eat. It’s not healthy.”

So, it was going to be one of those situations.

My best friend had witnessed this before and jumped to my defense. “She’s a working dog and by law you have to let her into the restaurant.”

“I’ve never heard of a law like that. It’s hotel policy to not allow animals of any kind in the restaurant, but I can go get my manager to see what can be done,” the hostess said. Her demeanor had noticeably soured. We all waited as she disappeared into the restaurant and came back with the manager.

He told us the same thing as the hostess, and when our friend group explained that refusing a service animal that was not unclean or disruptive was against the ADA, the manager didn’t know what we were talking about. He ended up grudgingly letting me and my guide dog in.

By that point, I had been a guide dog handler for two years and had been in my fair share of refusal situations. Each one had one thing in common: those refusing me had little to no idea what the ADA was.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), is a law that mandates public facilities and institutions, as well as employers, provide reasonable accommodations for the disabled. It puts protections in place that work to erase discriminatory and exclusionary practices. While the enactment of the law and the subsequent amendments in 2008 have brought us leaps and bounds in terms of rights and opportunities, it’s not enough.

There is a serious lack of knowledge of the ADA. Either people misunderstand it (purposefully or otherwise) or they have only heard about it in passing if at all. Students study about the constitution and the bill of rights, the emancipation proclamation and Civil rights act (sometimes), but not the ADA. Employees get little to no training on the ADA, and employers seem to only know enough to avoid expensive sanctions. Those who do know about the ADA and are acting in good faith appear lost when it comes to implementing it in real-world situations.

What’s even more troubling is how many disabled people know little to nothing about the ADA. Until I became a guide dog handler, I hadn’t heard much about it. None of my vision teachers had sat me down to discuss the laws that affect me. My first encounter with the ADA was during my first refusal as a handler. I was terrified. I didn’t know enough about my rights to defend myself, so I ended up leaving. Others are in the same boat, and having to leave a public place you deserve access to is one of many consequences of disabled people not knowing their rights and how to fight for them.

Reflecting on the 30-year anniversary of the ADA, I know we have a lot of work to do. The first step is more exposure and education. I imagine course units and even entire classes about Disability history. I imagine competencies in both the ADA and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) being included as an expanded core curriculum standard for disabled students. I imagine a standardized ADA certification program for employers and employees in every sector that explores the ADA through a reflective, layered lens and offers up tools for implementing accommodations and non-discriminatory practices in real-world situations.

I long for a future where I can mention the ADA, and everyone knows what I’m talking about. I long for a future where, if I’m being denied my rights, passersby will come to my defense with full knowledge of the ADA. And most of all, I long for a future where disabled people and their allies don’t have to invoke the name of the ADA — because disabled people having rights to equal access and accommodations will be treated as irrefutable fact.


The ADA Generation Speaks: We Need More than the Minimum

A young lady wearing glasses and a cloth face mask with flower printI am pleased to have 13-year-old guest blogger Anja Herrman back with us today. I got to know Anja very well when she was nine years old and learning at home during a casting program (casts on both legs from her hips down to her ankles). She was schooled at home for two months back then, and I was her at-home writing tutor. Many of her completed assignments were published as guest posts here on our Easterseals National blog, and you can read this post from 2016 to learn how and why she had all her posts back then published under the pen name DJ Mermaid. A disability activist, Dj Mermaid will be starting high school this fall and goes by her real name now.

The Americans With Disabilities Act: A Celebration of How Far We’ve Come, and How Much Further We Have to Go

by Anja Herrman

Hello everybody. I was thrilled when Beth asked me to write a post for Easterseals about the ADA’s thirtieth anniversary. The passage of the ADA in 1990 is something I feel very passionate about, so I am excited to share my thoughts. Without further ado…the post:

Let me first start by saying that I do not know a pre-ADA America. I was born in 2006, so while I myself did not experience the Capitol Crawl or other such historical events, I am proud to say I am part of the generation of disability activists who are attempting to build on those victories to advance civil rights.

Additionally, I know how lucky I am that I didn’t have to grow up in a world where I ever had to question whether the law provided me civil rights. That said, the ADA hasn’t removed all challenges people with disabilities (PWD) face when it comes to being equals in the world. It’s my job to reveal some challenges PWD of my generation face and what the ADA needs to have added into it to change and adapt with the times.

First, the ADA needs to include push buttons on bathroom doors. I mean, it is 2020, how is this not added in yet!

Secondly, I would like to see more intersectionality regarding different types of disabilities like sensory and intellectual disabilities by requiring businesses to have a sensory safe environment, and having information presented in different cognitive levels, so everyone can understand the material.

Thirdly, and this is a big one, I believe the ADA needs to add in a clause about hiring people with disabilities in public businesses and and seeing to it that they are paid over minimum wage. People with disabilities need to be able to have a safe and accessible workplace.

My life has been impacted with the passage of the ADA, however, the ADA has certainly fallen short for me personally. I see my disability as a part of me, and some environments need to adapt to fit me. This means that I am constantly forced to take what has been written and argue that my demands fit the ADA. PWD are still a minority in this country and I feel as though the ADA needs to be updated every three to five years. Why? Because when the perceptions of the people with disabilities and those of the public change, so should the laws.

As we remember the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, let’s look back on our triumphs and make ideas on how to push forward to support the ADA Generation: the new generation of civil rights.


Stories from the ADA Generation: Celebrating 30 Years

historical photo of a protest attended by people with disabilities, people using wheelchairsModerating the Easterseals National blog has taught me that the most powerful way to communicate about disability issues is to share the voices and stories of the experts: real people with disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act turns 30 at the end of this month, and with that in mind, I’ve been listening to the voices and stories of people with disabilities thanks to the audio version of a 2019 book called “From the Periphery: Real-Life Stories of Disability.” Author Pia Justesen spent four years talking with — and transcribing the accounts of — dozens of people who have disabilities, referring to those she talked with as “oral historians.”

Each chapter features an oral historian and Justesen starts with an unapologetic and respectful description of the person — along with an explanation of where the conversation took place and a short bit of background. Readers like us get to hear powerful, honest and compelling first-person accounts of what everyday life can be like when society treats you differently.

Justesen must have spent hundreds of hours talking with (and, especially, listening to) those oral historians — and she certainly gained their trust. The oral histories in this book are heartfelt, intelligent, and, well…real. My only problem with the book? Too many of the featured oral historians were, like me, over age 30. I would have liked to hear more from younger people with disabilities.

In the books foreword, retired Senator Tom Harkin, the Senate Author of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, refers to people with disabilities born after the passage of the ADA as the “ADA Generation,” crediting them for understanding that the way they are treated now has more to do with their surroundings than with their individual impairments. From the foreword:

These are the young people who have been raised since the passage of the ADA, which banned discrimination on the basis of disability, began to change the physical structures, and empowered individuals with disabilities to assert their rights in court.

”Members of the ADA generation are not going to just sit back and accept anything less than full inclusion,” Harkin writes, pointing out that unlike so many of us living with disabilities before 1990, the up and coming ADA Generation understands that they are capable. They know the attitudinal, structural, and physical barriers in society (the ones many of us over age 30 figured we just had to live with) are unfair.

This got me to thinking… I moderate the Easterseals blog. If I want to hear from people who became disabled or were born with disabilities after the ADA was passed, why not ask people to write guest posts about their experiences with disability rights and discrimination? I could ask them how we should look at the ADA now, 30 years later. Maybe they’d have suggestions for changes to the ADA for the next generation – especially given the current climate of people talking about social justice and equality.

So I asked them. And guess what? They responded! Watch for their guest posts here starting this week and continuing right up to the 30th anniversary on July 26, 2020. Get ready for action!


Add Your Story to an Anthology about COVID-19: Deadline Approaching!

a woman working on a laptopYou can be a part of a project that aims to give back to organizations that are instrumental in advancing mental health initiatives during this time.

Back in January, I wrote a post about meeting Katherine Schneider while we both were at the Seeing Eye training with new guide dogs. a retired clinical psychologist, Katherine supports the Schneider Family Book Award, the annual award administered by the American Library Association to honor the children’s book that best captures the disability experience for children and adolescents.

Katherine contacted me recently to let me know she is looking for essays for submissions to Blooming In the Shadow of COVID-19, an anthology of stories about resilience and growth during the pandemic. From a press release:

As we share our experiences during the pandemic, we also advocate for one another and connect with one another. As assumptions drop, people allow themselves to be known and to know. So, it is our hope this is the Bloom in the pandemic.

While Project Bloom can’t accept all essays, Katherine assures me they “very much want to read yours” and are open to all views and expressions related to your experience of COVID-19. “We’re looking for authentic expressions and stories, not perfection,” she says.

All submissions are due by July 15, 2020, and there is no cost to participate in this collaborative anthology. All funds generated from sales of the book will be donated to an agency or agencies supporting multicultural mental health initiatives. Personal essays should be written in the first-person, and the storyline should represent the author’s personal, lived experience during the pandemic. Poetry and artistic submissions will be considered as well.

In general, essays should be at least 800 words and less than 2000 words. The essay, a short biography (250 words), and a photo of the author needs to be emailed to Lisa@BeingAsil.com by 5 p.m. central time on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.


Service Dogs in the Pandemic, Part Two: Fear Not, Dogs Do Not Spread COVID19

I live in Chicago, one of the cities where businesses and other public places are starting to re-open.

I also use a service dog.

The re-opening of public places comes with many new regulations and rules about wearing masks, staying six feet apart, temperature testing and occupancy guidelines. One thing those of us with disabilities need to remember is that with all the changes resulting from the coronavirus, one thing that stays the same is this: The law still gives us the right to have equal access to public places, transportation, and air travel.

And people with disabilities who use service dogs? We have equal access to public places, transportation, and air travel with our service dogs, too.

My Seeing Eye dog Luna has been guiding me to more places lately as Illinois has entered Phase Three of re-opening. During these walks I’ve come across people who are absolutely sure that dogs spread COVID-19. They are wrong. Here is some information from the CDC about COVID-19 and animals:

The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing, and talking. Recent studies show that people who are infected but do not have symptoms likely also play a role in the spread of COVID-19. At this time, there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus that causes COVID-19.

Studies do show that the virus can survive for a period of time on surfaces, including a dog’s fur. but there is no evidence that dogs can transmit the virus to humans. And besides, people shouldn’t be touching our service dogs without our permission anyway.

One might argue that Luna and I benefit when the person with this misinformation is out on the sidewalk or in an intersection we’re crossing: that misinformed person gets wayyyyyyy out of our way and therefore does not distract us from our progress. But that benefit is far outweighed by the idea that this fear of COVID-19 transmission could leave store owners, government officials, and airline executives with an excuse to try and deny us access.

But guess what? Fear is not an excuse for denying access to a qualified service animal under the laws that protect us.

But speaking of fear, I’m still a little reluctant to be away from home in close quarters. As much as I could use a haircut, for now I’ll stick with my French braid. Social distancing can be difficult to judge when you can’t see, so my own comfort level (or circumstances about the pandemic beyond my control) might prevent me from going to some other places that have recently opened up as well. But whenever possible, for all of us with disabilities who use service dogs, that choice should be ours. We may have to work a little harder to educate people and advocate for ourselves during these challenging times, but our independence and dignity are worth protecting.


Celebrated Disability Rights Activists Discuss ‘What’s Next in Disability Activism?’ Inspired by Judy Heumann’s Memoir, “Being Heumann.”

Judy HeumannEasterseals hosted its first Disability Revolution Book Club, a virtual discussion with a powerhouse panel of female disability activists.  It was a lively, motivational and relevant conversation on civil rights, disability inclusion and representation, all amid the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Hundreds participated.  The 90-minute live conversation centered around Judy Heumman’s new must-read memoir “Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist.” The panelists included pioneering disabilities rights activist Judy Heumann, along with her co-author Kristen Joiner, Tony award-winning actress Ali Stroker, and award-winning actress and influencer Lolo Spencer. Disability advocate and journalist Emily Ladau was the moderator. Throughout the event, they took questions from the live audience and discussed the fight for equal rights, the importance and impact of representation, and what comes next in the conversation surrounding disability rights.

If you missed this motivational gathering, you can still tune in and watch it.

All panel participants in a Zoom meeting


Need further reason to check in out? Here’s a few highlights from this compelling conversation:

“I had a disability growing up as a kid, and I never had heard someone else’s story and felt, “that was my story too.”  And in reading and speaking Judy’s story, it did something to my own.  It allowed me to wrap my arms around my own experience and to process it through Judy, through her words, through her experiences.  It shook me to the core.”        – Ali Stroker

“I think people get caught up in thinking, when they tell their story, they have to have a million people as their audience first before they can start telling it…that is not the case.  You can start telling your story just around your immediate circle of people, in your classrooms, at the office. You can advocate by literally being at the store and being like, ‘hey, that dressing room is designated for me.  This isn’t right.’”  – Lolo Spencer

“We need more stories about people with disabilities where their stories are told as human stories that we can all relate to. Representation is a huge issue. If 1 in 4 people has a disability, how are they invisible in any situation ever? So we need to be asking those questions about why… we need to be using our influence with people without disabilities to make sure that everybody has a seat at the table and they’re no longer invisible.” – Kristen Joiner

“We need to be educating the general public, but we also need to be educating ourselves.  Because we have grown up in worlds where we’re not really significantly exposed to people who have various forms of disabilities and come from different backgrounds.  We need to really understand why institutions have been developed, and what is the oppression around disabled people who are dependent on other people in many ways.”  – Judy Heumann

Easterseals greatly appreciates the point of view each speaker brought to the party. Thank you so much for using your voices to advance this critically important discussion. Please encourage your friends and family to read Being Heumann. Our aim is for more people in our communities to reflect upon, learn from and be proud of our shared disability history. And, most important, to come together and take action to work towards greater equality for all of us, regardless of our differences and abilities.


“When. Will. This. End?” – The Impact of COVID-19 on Parenting

Three months ago, we were all thrust into an unprecedented situation. Some of us had to close businesses. Some of us had to step in to take care of a loved one. Others had to figure out where their next paycheck would come from – and fast. The COVID-19 outbreak has been difficult for all of us, but while some of us are coping by talking with family and friends over Zoom or diving into hobbies, it can be difficult for children to understand the problem – and in turn, equally difficult for them to find coping mechanisms.

This is an issue I have heard repeatedly when I talk to parents who participate in Easterseals programs. And while all children might be coping with this challenging time in their own ways, it can be especially difficult for children with disabilities and children with autism. Routine and consistent scheduling are especially important for them. COVID-19, through no fault of the parents or those who are trying to help, completely uprooted the sense of security that routine can bring to someone with autism.

Easterseals therapists and service providers are doing all they can to ensure as much of the critical routines of children on the autism spectrum remain intact through technology and telehealth. And that is just it – everyone is doing what they can in this situation, and all of us should be proud about of that.  It is so hard to see that you are making it through when you are in the weeds.  You find yourself asking:


That is exactly how one of our program participants, Banner, expressed his frustrations. Banner, age 10, has seen his Easterseals therapist through Zoom sessions ever since social distancing became the norm. Still, the shock of having to change routine hit him and his family hard, and he is not alone. Buzzfeed recently profiled many American families, including Banner’s, to give a more detailed picture of the ways COVID-19 has impacted children.

I think many of us share Banner’s feelings. Just when will it end?

We may not know the answer to that question. But I cannot help but be proud of how the Easterseals community – parents, caregivers, teachers and therapists – has shown strength and resilience through this time. We all are taking on new responsibilities, while already juggling full plates!  But we must not forget to give ourselves credit when credit is due. You – the parent who is wondering if you are doing this ‘right’ or is questioning if your child will be okay at the end of this – are doing the best you can. That is enough. And although you may have doubts now, you will make it through. Just like a child progressing through their goals, we are all taking things day by day – step by step. We are learning together.

And we will make it through to the other side – together. I know we will.