Why Disability And Poverty Still Go Hand In Hand 25 Years After Landmark Law

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After a long day, Emeka arrives home to the apartment in South Tulsa that he shares with his father. (Kenneth M. Ruggiano for NPR)
After a long day, Emeka arrives home to the apartment in South Tulsa that he shares with his father. (Kenneth M. Ruggiano for NPR)

If you have a disability in the U.S., you're twice as likely to be poor as someone without a disability. You're also far more likely to be unemployed. And that gap has widened in the 25 years since the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted.

"Every man, woman and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence and freedom," President George H.W. Bush said when he signed the bill into law on July 26, 1990.

The ADA banned discrimination based on disability and was intended to ensure equal opportunity in employment — as well as government services and public accommodations, commercial facilities and public transportation.

But it hasn't always worked that way, especially when it comes to expanding economic opportunity for the 58 million Americans with physical and mental disabilities.

Paralyzed, But Still In Pursuit Of His Dreams

Nnaka runs into his friend Aaron Million in the parking lot of Tulsa's Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges.
Nnaka runs into his friend Aaron Million in the parking lot of Tulsa's Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges.

You just have to look at what 27-year-old Emeka Nnaka of Tulsa, Okla., goes through on an average day to understand some of the reasons why.

Six years ago, Nnaka was playing semipro football for the Oklahoma Thunder when he went to make a tackle and broke his neck.

"I remember players saying, 'Meka ... you gotta get up. Let's go.' And I remember telling them, 'Give me a second,' " recalls Nnaka. "And one second turned to two seconds turned to three seconds."

He was paralyzed from his chest down. Today, Nnaka gets around in a motorized wheelchair, and has limited use of his hands.

But he still has big dreams. He plans to finish his undergraduate education this summer and start working on a master's degree in human relations. He wants to become a licensed counselor, and hopes someday to have a home and a family he can support.

Nnaka has a discussion with fellow students during a class at Langston University's Tulsa campus.
Nnaka has a discussion with fellow students during a class at Langston University's Tulsa campus.

One key to his success could be the new accessible van he received in December with help from the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services and a group of friends, who held an online fundraising campaign for him, #MakeMekaMobile.

Before the van, Nnaka had to rely on a special lift service provided by the city to get around. But those rides had to be booked at least a day in advance, and often involved long waits and complicated schedules.

"I'd spend about three hours in transportation daily when I was riding the lift. So think about three hours out of your day in which you're not doing anything," he says.

As a result, it was extremely difficult to get anything done. Without the van, Nnaka says, it would have taken him all day to run an errand he recently did in about an hour and a half: going to a staffing agency to fill out paperwork for a job.

The Problems Start In The Parking Lot

During lunch with his friend Jacquelyn Croudy, Nnaka asks the server for a tray so that he can keep his food in his lap; he says that's easier than trying to get his legs under the table.
During lunch with his friend Jacquelyn Croudy, Nnaka asks the server for a tray so that he can keep his food in his lap; he says that's easier than trying to get his legs under the table.

Just having a job is highly unusual for someone with a disability. Fewer than 1 in 5 disabled adults are employed, one reason so many are poor.

The local United Way has hired Nnaka for a part-time position to talk about the group's work with programs for disabled individuals, including at the Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges, where Nnaka volunteers.

But when he got to the staffing agency, he ran into a number of challenges that those with disabilities often face.

The problems started outside the building, where the strip next to the handicapped space where he parked was too narrow for the ramp he uses to unload his wheelchair. He had to park over the line on the other side to get out. He says if another vehicle had been parked in the adjoining space, he would have been stuck.

And when Nnaka wheeled up to the front door, he found that there was no button to push to open it automatically. The building was constructed before the ADA, and while ADA standards highly recommend automation of exterior doors, it's not required. He had to wedge the side of one arm under the handle, cracking the door open slightly. He then wiggled his chair back and forth like a crowbar to get in.

Just as Nnaka gets ready for his daily workout at the center, visitors show up for a tour. He volunteers to show them the gym and other facilities.
Just as Nnaka gets ready for his daily workout at the center, visitors show up for a tour. He volunteers to show them the gym and other facilities.

When Nnaka got into the tiny elevator, he couldn't turn his chair around to reach the buttons. Fortunately, there was another passenger to help.

Once inside the staffing agency, he had to move the computer mouse slowly with a clenched fist to fill out nine pages of forms.

This former athlete seems to struggle through even the smallest task. Still, Nnaka hopes to show employers that it's worth hiring him and others who face similar challenges, that they have a lot to offer. He says one problem facing people with disabilities is that many companies think they're not up to the job, or think hiring them is not worth the effort.

'Employers Are Scared To Hire Us'

And there is a vigorous debate over why so many individuals with disabilities are unemployed. According to the Employment and Disability Institute at Cornell University, 28.4 percent of disabled adults worked in 1990, compared with 14.4 percent in 2013.

Nnaka prepares to get into a "stander." The device puts him into a standing position, which allows him to bear weight during his workout.
Nnaka prepares to get into a "stander." The device puts him into a standing position, which allows him to bear weight during his workout.

Debbie Eagle, who's been blind since birth, is one of Nnaka's colleagues at the Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges. She volunteers there, teaching the visually impaired how to use technology.

She says she'd really like if either she or her husband — who is also visually impaired — could find a well-paying job so that they are "not dependent on the government."

But try as she might, the 43-year-old says, she can't seem to find work, even though she has a bachelor's degree in special education. Eagle blames employer ignorance — as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"Employers are scared to hire us," says Eagle, "because they don't know what kind of accommodations we require. And if they don't meet what we consider to be reasonable accommodations, they're afraid we'll sue them."

Eagle says she can't prove that this is the reason, but she's pretty sure it is.

Nnaka arrives home to his apartment in South Tulsa after a long day.
Nnaka arrives home to his apartment in South Tulsa after a long day.

Michael Morris, executive director of the National Disability Institute in Washington, D.C., agrees that some employers are hesitant to hire people with disabilities.

"Attitudes change slowly," he says, adding that he doesn't think there's a single reason for the gap between the employment rate for those with disabilities and those without.

'The System Is Not Set Up To Succeed'

Morris says a lack of accessible transportation is one big problem for disabled individuals trying to work or go to school. And he says that students with disabilities are less likely to graduate from high school and college, putting them at a disadvantage in a competitive workplace.

He says another obstacle to employment is that if recipients of federal disability payments save more than $2,000, they risk losing their benefits, including medical care.

At left, a poster on the wall in Nnaka's room with inspirational messages. At right, a photograph taken moments before the accident that would change his life, decorated with signatures and messages from his Oklahoma Thunder teammates and friends.
At left, a poster on the wall in Nnaka's room with inspirational messages. At right, a photograph taken moments before the accident that would change his life, decorated with signatures and messages from his Oklahoma Thunder teammates and friends.

"The decision becomes, 'Wow, I think I'm going to just stay put where I am.' Which is the equivalent of a life sentence of poverty," Morris says.

In fact, that asset limit was a big problem for Nnaka when donations began pouring in for his new van. At one point, he says, he kept $4,000 in cash in the closet of the small apartment he shares with his father. If he had put the money in the bank, he could have lost the $700 monthly disability check he needs to survive.

The irony, he says, is that the money was earmarked for buying a van that he would use to go to school and get a job — making him less reliant on government aid.

"The system is not set up to succeed," Nnaka says.

Morris says the outlook is improving, though. Congress recently passed a law that will soon allow some disabled adults to save more money by establishing special accounts — exempt from the cap — in which certain savings can be placed. Federal contractors are also required to set goals for hiring more disabled workers. And Morris says a growing number of students with disabilities are earning degrees and getting internships.

Nnaka and his father, Phillip, chat in Emeka's room.
Nnaka and his father, Phillip, chat in Emeka's room.

"That actual experience does more to change attitudes, change perception, right through to their HR offices that say, 'Wow, hidden talent pool. Let's explore it,' " says Morris.

He thinks, though, that it could take another 25 years before the promise of economic independence envisioned by the ADA is achieved.

Nnaka agrees that many doors have been opened since the law was enacted, but he says it hasn't been enough.

"There's so much more that people with disabilities need, to be inclusive and included in this society. To have just the same opportunity that anybody else has," he says.

Unfortunately, he adds, the ADA has led many people to believe that all the barriers are gone.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Emeka Nnaka sits in his bed during a pause in text messages from friends as he makes plans for the evening.
Emeka Nnaka sits in his bed during a pause in text messages from friends as he makes plans for the evening.

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Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

If you have a disability in the U.S., you're more than twice as likely to be poor as someone without a disability. The gap has been widening since the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed 25 years ago this Sunday. The law was supposed to expand economic opportunity for the 58 million disabled Americans, but it hasn't always worked that way. NPR's Pam Fessler reports on one young man in Tulsa, Okla., and his efforts to become self-sufficient.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Emeka Nnaka is an ambitious, outgoing 27-year-old. He's also paralyzed from the chest down. Six years ago, he played semipro football for the Oklahoma Thunder, went to make a tackle and broke his neck.

EMEKA NNAKA: I remember players saying, Meka, you know, you got to get up, let's go. And I remember telling them, you know, give me a second, you know? And one second turned to two seconds, turned to three seconds and then the trainers came out and...

FESSLER: His life had changed forever. Today he gets around in a motorized wheelchair. His long legs dangle over the footrests as he greets friends at a center where he works out.

E. NNAKA: What's up, brother?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How's it going?

E. NNAKA: It goes well, man, it goes well. You doing all right?

FESSLER: Emeka Nnaka is a big guy - six-foot-five - and a perpetual optimist. He wants to finish undergraduate school this summer, get a master's degree in human relations, become a counselor, maybe someday have a home and a family he can support.

E. NNAKA: You get to meet Savannah (ph).

FESSLER: Who's Savannah?

E. NNAKA: (Laughter). My van.

FESSLER: Savannah is what he calls his new handicapped accessible van. It could be the key to his success. He got the van last December after friends launched an online fundraising campaign with the hashtag #MakeMekaMobile.

E. NNAKA: Could you hand me that white cord?

FESSLER: Nnaka plugs in a smartphone for directions. He's still learning his way around. He used to rely on a special lift service provided by the city, but those rides had to be booked at least a day in advance and often involved long waits.

E. NNAKA: I'd spend about three hours in transportation daily when I was riding the lift. So think about, like, three hours out of your day in which you're not doing anything.

FESSLER: Now he's in the driver's seat, and he's doing something today that's highly unusual for someone with a disability - he's going to a staffing agency to fill out paperwork for a job. Less than 20 percent of disabled adults are employed, one reason so many are poor. Nnaka's been hired part-time by United Way to talk about their work, but when we get to the staffing agency, there's a problem.

E. NNAKA: See that little strip?

FESSLER: Yeah.

E. NNAKA: That's not enough for me to get my ramp out and...

FESSLER: Really?

E. NNAKA: Not at all.

FESSLER: The handicap space is a bit too narrow, so he has to park over the line. When Nnaka wheels to the front door there's also no button he can push to open it. This place was built before the ADA, so it's not required. I asked Nnaka what he'd do if I weren't there.

E. NNAKA: If you weren't here, I would...

FESSLER: He wedges the side of one arm under the handle, cracking the door open slightly. He then wiggles his chair back and forth like a crowbar until he's inside. He then gets into a nearby elevator but has no room to turn.

E. NNAKA: This elevator is tiny. Can you push two?

FESSLER: Now, how would you have pushed two?

E. NNAKA: See, now that's a good question.

FESSLER: He say he'd probably have to wait until someone came by and ask for help. It's almost unbearable watching this former athlete struggle through even the smallest task. He has limited use of his hands and has to move the computer mouse with a clenched fist to fill out nine pages of forms at the staffing agency, including answering questions about his abilities.

E. NNAKA: Reading - yup. Crawling - no. Counting - yup. Standing - no (laughter).

FESSLER: Nnaka says one problem for people with disabilities is that many companies don't think they're up to the job. He hopes to prove them wrong.

E. NNAKA: All right. We're out of here. See you guys. Thank ya'll.

FESSLER: Of course, Emeka Nnaka has a lot going for him. He's extremely popular, with a huge network of friends. When we pull up to a gas station, he uses his knuckles to tap out a number on the cell phone.

E. NNAKA: Keegan, what's up? It's Emeka. I am at pump 14 and could use some assistance.

FESSLER: Nnaka comes here because he knows one of the guys working inside. He soon arrives at the car window.

E. NNAKA: What's up, boss man?

KEEGAN: What are you getting today?

E. NNAKA: I am going to fill up on gas and I am going to get - what kind of taquitos you guys got in there?

KEEGAN: Chicken, steak, pepper jack, cheesy pepper jack and habanero.

FESSLER: Nnaka says he's determined to make something of his life because so many people have helped him to get as far as he has. Especially his father, who moved here from Georgia after the accident and has cared for Nnaka ever since - bathing him, dressing him, cooking and cleaning.

E. NNAKA: This is my dad.

FESSLER: Hi, how are you?

PHILIP NNAKA: Fine, how are you?

FESSLER: My name is Pam, hi.

The two share a small two-bedroom apartment subsidized by the government. It's on the ground floor, which is good, although the bathroom door is too narrow for Nnaka's wheelchair, so he can't get in.

E. NNAKA: Dad, can I have a Gatorade?

FESSLER: Like many with disabilities, Nnaka relies on government aid, which he'd prefer not to be on. Oklahoma has helped in with school expenses and retrofitting his van. He also gets Medicare and about $700 a month in Social Security disability benefits. But there's a catch. Nnaka will lose his federal aid if he saves more than $2,000.

E. NNAKA: The system is not set up to succeed.

FESSLER: Nnaka says this asset limit holds back many disabled people who would like to work. It was a huge problem for him when cash donations started pouring in for his van.

E. NNAKA: And I had $4,000 in my closet, so it was like, OK...

FESSLER: In your closet?

E. NNAKA: Yeah, 'cause I mean, I was just taking - couldn't put it anywhere, you know?

FESSLER: Congress has agreed that the savings limit is a problem, and last year it passed legislation that will soon allow some people with disabilities to set up special accounts that are exempt. Emeka Nnaka thinks 25 years after the ADA, many doors have been opened, but not enough.

E. NNAKA: There's so much more that people with disabilities need to be inclusive and included in this society to have just the same opportunity that anybody else has.

FESSLER: He says unfortunately the ADA has led many people to believe that all the barriers are gone. Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.