The ADA: The Journey to Liberty & Justice for All

On July 26, 2016 the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) turns 26 years old. The ADA is America’s most comprehensive and far-reaching piece of civil rights legislation.  Upon the signing of the ADA, Senator Ted Kennedy spoke about “America sailing towards the shores of liberty and justice for all.”  A journey, he remarked, “That will outlast us all – a journey with no end.”   

As Americans with disabilities, their families, disability rights advocates, and policy makers continue the journey to liberty and equal justice, we must remember the estimated 400,000 people with serious mental illnesses and cognitive disorders incarcerated in America’s jails and prisons.  According to the recent report, Disabled Behind Bars, the decades-old trend known as the criminalization of people with mental illness, which drives mass incarceration in America, represents a moral and human rights condition which must be solved.  A vexing problem which gave rise to the first mental health court in the U.S., designed to demonstrate the need for community care from a recovery perspective.

These are the principles of social justice and equality which the ADA, Title II and Olmstead v. L.C. stand for.  In 2001, President George W. Bush initiated the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health.  The Commission’s purpose, to study the national mental health delivery system and submit recommendations to the White House in order that Americans with mental disabilities would gain opportunities to live, work, learn and fully participate in the community.

This anniversary of the ADA, we must consider the journey of liberty and equality, not only in terms of what the law says, but what it means for America.  According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Callous and Cruel, it is all too easy for persons with serious mental illnesses to become trapped in the criminal justice system. Every day in the mental health court I see how one problem leads to another. Where a complex web of the consequences of untreated or under-treated mental illness shifts to the criminal justice system. A system which is ill-equipped to respond humanely to serious mental health problems.   

The cause and effect of under-funded and inadequate community based systems of mental health care are wide-ranging and perilous.  According to HRW, many persons incarcerated with serious mental illness often suffer neglect of care, and/or are subject to victimization, violence and abuse. As further noted by research, many of those confined have not committed serious or violent offenses and have the ability to recover and live safely in the community. If only they could gain access to health benefits, secure stable housing, treatment and supportive services.

This anniversary of the ADA, I would like to celebrate with a quote by Professor, Lennard J. Davis, remarking on the infinite possibility of the ADA states, “Like a symphony, the law only exists when someone translates the signs on the page into living reality.” It is beyond time for policy makers on every level of government to advance the ADA, Title II and Olmstead. To begin the next leg of the journey to community mental health care and the vision of recovery – for liberty and justice for all.

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