The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, is the reason why there are wheelchair ramps in every public establishment, toilet cubicles are expanded, elevators and ATMs have braille, service counters are lowered, and parking lots are accentuated with blue wheelchair logos.
But on Guam, as it is nationwide, ADA remains in its nascent stage since it became law on July 26, 1990. Understanding its provisions — which encompass every aspect of public life, from using the toilet to getting a job — is a continuing education.
Compliance rate on Guam is 50 percent, according to Ben Servino, director of the Department of Integrated Services for Individuals with Disabilities, or DISID. “Every state has its own challenges,” he said. “The lack of compliance has to do with lack of full understanding of the law.”
The 27-year-old law provides protection for people with disabilities by dismantling barriers to mobility and leveling the field to afford them equal employment opportunities. “Some people think it’s a building code; it’s not. ADA is a civil rights law,” Servino said. “What businesses need to understand, too, is that they get tax credit for renovating their establishments to make them compliant with the law.”
ADA also empowers people with disabilities to sue if they feel they are denied accommodations.
In September 2016, the Guam Department of Education agreed to pay $80,000 and provide other relief to settle a charge of disability discrimination filed by a school aide with multiple disabilities. In the complaint lodged with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or EEOC, the school aide alleged she was denied accommodation when the school assigned her to traffic duty against her doctor's restrictions. EEOC found merits in the complaint.
Cases that don’t get resolved at the EEOC are elevated to the court system. A total of 108 disability cases have been filed in the district court of Guam since 1991. It reflects an average of four cases a year, which is relatively minimal compared to the volume of filings in other states, where indiscriminate lawsuits spread like a contagion. Some cases on Guam have been dismissed for lack of merits.
Seemingly though, ADA’s success in the area of employment is immobilized by an inherent dilemma. “Most businesses are in the business of making money, so they look for quality work, high productivity and good job knowledge,” said Eddy Reyes, founder of Flame Tree Freedom Center.
“Guam is not a lawsuit-hungry society. There are many legitimate cases, but some people who file frivolous lawsuits ruin it for everybody,” Servino said. “We prefer to be proactive by educating the public and advising businesses on how to be compliant with the law.”
ADA is also the reason words like “handicapped” and “disabled” are scrapped from mainstream vocabulary. “Attitude toward people with disabilities is slowly changing,” Servino said.
But in the work site, sentiments don’t always translate into hiring decisions. Doors remain shut on most people with disabilities who are seeking jobs. Guam law mandates every government agency to hire a number of people with disabilities equivalent to 2 percent of the staff. Oddly, the government of Guam is a violator of its own policy. DVR records show that of 35 line agencies, only 16 offices are compliant with the 2-percent hiring quota.
DVR is not beyond reproach either. Between 2010 and 2013, Guam relinquished $2.88 million in federal grants allotted for programs and services for individuals with disabilities due to the DVR’s inability to expend the funds. Servino attributes this situation to a lack of staff.
Seemingly though, ADA’s success in the area of employment is immobilized by an inherent dilemma. “Most businesses are in the business of making money, so they look for quality work, high productivity and good job knowledge,” said Eddy Reyes, founder of Flame Tree Freedom Center. “Individuals with disabilities are starting from the disadvantage because of their limitations. They are competing with other candidates who have college degrees and previous work experiences.”
So, unless they get a breakthrough, people with disabilities who have no previous job experience get stuck in a catch-22.
The Flame Tree Freedom Center, a nonprofit organization, was formed initially just to provide job training, in partnership with DVR, for people with disabilities. The center provides job training for web development and janitorial tasks. But getting fulltime job placements for clients who complete the training yields only a 6-percent success. “I would say that a lot of employers don’t have experience in working with people with disabilities,” Reyes said. “It’s hard for them to be emphatic or sympathetic because they are in the business of making money.”
Last year, Flame Tree Freedom Center started hiring client-trainees for jobs that correspond to their skills. The center, however, needs to obtain enough contracts to be able to sustain the jobs. It currently provides web development and janitorial services to government agencies and private companies.
“At Flame tree, we already know that we are dealing with individuals with disabilities. We are looking at what they can learn and what we can teach them,” Reyes said.
Most people with disabilities need a strong support system. To meet this requirement, Reyes sought DVR’s commitment to provide extended job coaching services for trainees. “It may take a while for an individual to get used to his working environment, or the employer to get used to them,” Reyes said. “It takes better understanding of what they can do and what they can’t. The key is to find their strengths and focus on them.”