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How the Americans with Disabilities Act changed life for deaf people

Jul 27, 2020

Gerard Buckley, president of RIT's National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
Credit National Technical Institute for the Deaf

Gerard Buckley still clearly remembers July 26, 1990.

On that day, he stood alongside dozens of others in the White House Rose Garden, as then-President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.

"It was really amazing," Buckley recalled. "It was everything I wish the country was today. The Republicans, the Democrats, the independents, the business community, leaders from the disability community all came together."

That day, Buckley was a young deaf man. Today, he is president of RIT's National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

The most important change the ADA brought to deaf people, in his estimation, was the ability to communicate more easily. 

In an essay for the nonprofit online platform The Conversation, Buckley pointed out that American Sign Language and the need for ASL interpreters has become more widely recognized since the passage of the ADA.

Title III of the ADA requires public facilities such as museums, shopping centers, and hospitals to open access to verbal information on television displays, films, or slide shows.  However, an effort to mandate closed captioning for films shown in movie theaters and on cable television was quashed by the motion picture and cable industries. 

Buckley said a basic right for deaf people was recognized in the ADA with the requirement that the nationwide system of telephone relay services for the deaf and hard of hearing be equivalent to standard telephones.

Before the mandate, deaf people had to rely on a volunteer relay service that had limited hours of operation.  Doing business or even scheduling a dental appointment in those pre-internet and pre-cellphone days was a struggle.

It was also a barrier to employment.

"The first question I was asked when I graduated from RIT when I went out for a job interview was, 'Can you use the telephone?' " Buckley said, "And when I said, 'No, not without the relay service,' which was voluntary, they said, 'Well, we're sorry. This job requires use of a telephone,' and I was automatically disqualified."

Buckley credits the ADA, through its guarantees of accessibility and accommodations to public schools, with giving rise to a deaf middle class.

"And now, it's not unusual," he explained. "I mean, we live in Rochester. You're not surprised to hear we have two deaf veterinarians; we have a deaf dentist, we have multiple deaf Ph.D.s, we have several physicians who are deaf. But if you went back 30 years ago, that wasn't true."

But the employment gap between deaf and hearing people in the U.S. is still over 22%. America still has to work, said Buckley, to make the full promises of the ADA a reality.


This story is part of Move to Include, an initiative that uses the power of public media to inform and transform attitudes and behaviors about inclusion. Move to Include was founded by WXXI and the Golisano Foundation and expanded with a grant by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.