“Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.” ― Albert Einstein
I have been an avid reader all my life, and was formerly a high school English teacher. My new job at the RMADAC is very similar, minus the white boards and the bathroom passes. I spend lots of time reading and researching so I can understand complex topics and be able to simplify and share that knowledge. When I train, I depend on the written and spoken word to get my point across in a short amount of time. When I write my blog posts, I aspire for my prose to be poignant, pithy, and persuasive. Not everyone wants to nerd out like me over language and words. I consider our work at the RMADAC as similar to librarians. We try to get people the information they need without judgement. It can be intimidating trying to interpret the ADA and apply it to real life outside of the page. Here are some aspects of language that have helped me delve into this complex civil rights law.
Prescriptive versus Descriptive
This is a term I learned studying linguistics. These are terms used to describe the rules and expectations of a language. A prescriptive grammar is one that depends on rules, such as the rules in William Strunk’s "The Elements of Style". It says exactly what should and ought to be done in every situation, and any deviance from the rules is wrong. A descriptive grammar tries to explain a language as it is used in real, day-to-day life. This is similar to the ADA – the law does not prescribe what to do in every possible situation. Instead, it describes what non-discrimination looks like, such as integration, and effective communication. At RMADAC, we’re here to help you understand these grey areas which may not be written out in black and white in the ADA.
Semantics – What the Dictionary Says
Often, we rely on a dictionary to tell us a definition. This is not always helpful in understanding the ADA. For example, what does reasonable mean when it comes to reasonable accommodations? I can tell you that it is not unreasonable, but it takes more context to give a complete answer. When the ADA was passed, lawyers tried to precisely define disability. Some took their arguments as far as the Supreme Court. In the end, the courts interpreted the original language of the ADA very narrowly. This resulted in denying protection to many individuals. Some impairments left out of the original definition include: amputations, intellectual disabilities, cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, muscular dystrophy, and epilepsy. It took an act of Congress to correct this narrow interpretation.
In 2008, the ADA Amendments Act was passed. The current definition of disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The definition also includes people who have a history or record of an impairment. Finally, the law covers a person who is perceived by others as having an impairment. This new law also states that the definition of disability should be interpreted in favor of broad coverage of individuals. This is a legal definition, not a medical one, so disability is determined using common sense analysis, rather than strict statistical, scientific, or medical evidence. The definition cannot and should not be simple, because disability is diversity. There is no cookie cutter mold to fit into, and the law is meant to be flexible to account for the enormous variety of humanity. At the end of the day, what is important is whether or not people have access and opportunities, rather than a strict dictionary definition.
More than Words
All words must be born from the heart of an author. I hope this guide will give you confidence to speak about disability with your friends, family, and community. If you’re struggling, you’re not alone. We’re here to help and if you make a mistake, we don’t give detention.