CARBONDALE – Twenty-five years ago today, George H. W. Bush signed into law the
Americans with Disabilities Act, one of America’s most sweeping pieces of civil rights
legislation, aimed at achieving inclusion and accessibility for the millions of people
living with disabilities.
The year was 1990, and Matthew Fred was 14. He doesn’t remember hearing anything
about the law as an adolescent and had never even interacted with anyone with a known
disability growing up in a rural town an hour south of Chicago.
It’s a cliché to say that life can change in an instant, but it’s a well-worn phrase because
it’s also true.
Six years after the law was signed, Fred, at age 20, set out to work around 4 a.m. to his
job in a shipping and receiving factory. On the way, he fell asleep at the wheel, and his
car rolled several times.
He would never walk again. But he would soldier on.
Fred spent 18 months in rehabilitation, learning to navigate life as a quadriplegic, learning
to drive a power wheelchair, learning about rights for people with disabilities, learning
about the power of the human body and mind to adapt as the country itself was learning to
be more adaptable and accepting.
Five years after Fred’s accident, he moved to Carbondale in 2001 and enrolled at SIU,
going on to earn a bachelor’s degree in phycology and a master’s in rehabilitative
counseling. Fred said he chose SIU largely because of the campus’s reputation of being
accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities.
That’s a campus legacy dating back decades credited largely to former President Delyte
Morris’s commitment to build a university that welcomed with open arms thousands of
GIs returning from World War II, many with war-related injuries.
The school, he said, was way ahead of its time. Fred, who keeps an active social life
frequenting area restaurants and other businesses with friends, said Carbondale officials
also have done a good job over the years at making sure the town’s infrastructure is
“I’ve not found any major obstacles in this town,” said Fred, now 39. “Granted, some
sidewalks are better than others. But in general, if you want to get around somewhere
in this town you can get there. I drive this chair all over town – literally.”
Fred drives his chair roughly three miles to work every day down sidewalks – and on one
short stretch, the shoulder of a busy road – to arrive at his job as an independent living
specialist with the Southern Illinois Center for Independent Living.
It’s not perfect, but it’s a pretty easy town to navigate for people living with physical
disabilities, he said. Fred, as did others, said it’s important that the city keep in mind that
maintaining sidewalks and walkways is not just about aesthetics, but critical for people
who use wheelchairs.
Sam Goodin, director of Disability Support Services at SIU, said he was part of a team
meeting with City Manager Kevin Baity on Friday to discuss that need, as well as others
brought to his attention by students.
Sidewalk maintenance will “be high on our list,” he said in advance of the meeting. “Tree
roots on sidewalks are problematic,” he said. “People have also found places where we
need brail signage on elevators, so people who are blind know what button they’re
Goodin said his department works with about 400 students who are living with various
mental, physical or intellectual disabilities, providing support services and adaptive
equipment. Goodin said he’s currently exploring the possibility of adding captioning to
the Jumbotron at the SIU arena to accommodate people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Major events utilize sign language interpreters but not everyone, particularly the newly
deaf, know sign language, he said.
Helping to continue the tradition of encouraging students living with disabilities to choose
SIU, a former SIU student who went on to have a high-level position with IBM, along with
his wife, donated $1.3 million to the university in 2013 to support other SIU students with
“The Greenwoods left a powerful legacy by supporting the institution that welcomed him
in the ‘60s, well before the Americans with Disabilities Act required campuses to be
accessible,” said former Chancellor Rita Cheng, in a news release. “Jim Greenwood
remained a Saluki throughout his life, and we couldn’t be prouder or more grateful that he
and Martha are making it possible for other students with disabilities to attend SIU.”
The Jim and Martha Greenwood Fund, created through the Greenwoods’ estate, provides
scholarships for students with disabilities who are studying science, engineering or
computer science. For the 2014-15 school year, two scholarships totaling $25,000 were
awarded. Applicants must have a demonstrated physical disability as documented by the
Disability Support Services office.
For all the advancements made in the country for people with disabilities in the last
quarter-century, there’s still more to be done, said Tony Paulauski, executive director at
Arc of Illinois, which represents people throughout the state living with intellectual or
“I can clearly say the ADA has had a tremendous positive impact nationally for people
living with disabilities, including people with intellectual disabilities. That’s not to say that
everything is perfect, and we do have a ways to go.”
Paulauski said that he sees one of the fights of this generation being about inclusion for
people living with disabilities in living settings and the workplace. In 2015, the state should
be long past its policy of warehousing people with disabilities in state-run or private, state-
funded institutions who are capable living in the community. But state policies still fall short
in funding for community-based care for people with disabilities versus them living in an
institution designated for people with mental, developmental or intellectual disabilities,
even though community care, on average, is a more appropriate and less expensive
alternative, he said.
Also, he said, the ADA, in addition to mandating structural accessibility, also speaks to
access to employment and the rights of employees to request reasonable
accommodations in the workplace, be it in terms of reading equipment for the blind, or
flexible scheduling for someone who has a mental illness. Unemployment rates for people
with disabilities remain high nationally, he said, around 70 percent, and as high as 90
percent for people with intellectual disabilities.
Barry Taylor, an attorney and vice president for civil rights at Equip for Equality Illinois, a
statewide organization that is federally mandated to provide free legal services to people
with disabilities, seconded those concerns, and said the push for better policies and more
informed employers will continue long past the 25th birthday of the ADA. The organization
has offices in Carbondale, Springfield, Moline and Chicago.
In 2013, former Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law an Employment First decree that Taylor
and others are in the process of helping figure out how to best implement. Among other
things, it looks at state funding needs for job coaches that can assist an employee with a
disability in adapting to or learning a new job.
His agency also continues to push for more integrating living options for people with
disabilities, after having settled three lawsuits that were filed during the administration of
former Gov. Rod Blagojevich on behalf of people with mental, physical and developmental
disabilities who were living in private, state-funded institutions or nursing homes because
they could not access services at home. These people could otherwise live more fulfilling
lives in the community with access to Medicaid “waivers” that provide a variety of in-home
health assistance, the lawsuits alleged, contending the state was violating the ADA and the
U.S. Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision that says state services must be offered in the
most inclusive setting possible. Community-based care is cheaper on average, but the
nursing home lobbying has been historically strong in Illinois and other states.
Officials from the state and organization have signed consent decrees related to all three
cases, and some 7,000 people since 2010 have been able to access these Medicaid
services in the community, Taylor said. That number continues to grow daily, he said.
“The political nature of Illinois is people who fund these institutions have much more
political power than people with disabilities,” Taylor said. “The ADA gave people the tools
to result in systemic change that would not happen voluntarily by the state.”
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI â€‹
Tony Paulauski Executive Director
The Arc of Illinois
20901 S. LaGrange Rd. Suite 209
Frankfort, IL 60423