It’s been a big week for equality, as Congress has passed two major pieces of legislation that move the country in the direction of equal access for all Americans regardless of disability.

The major headline which you have probably heard about is the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments. These amendments restore the spirit of the original Americans with Disabilities Act, which had come under fire from Supreme Court rulings that put people with disabilities in a Catch-22 situation. As explained by Cristóbal Joshua Alex of the National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights:

In one case after another, the Supreme Court whittled away at the landmark Americans with Disabilities Actby ignoring Congressional intent and narrowly interpreting the definition of disability. [. . .] This created a Catch-22 situation: if a person is able to limit the effect of having a disability, say by taking medication or using a medical device, that person would no longer be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act and employers were free to discriminate at will. The result has been devastating. Plaintiffs lose 97% of employment-related cases under the ADA.

The absurdity played out in courtrooms across the country where judges, following the Supreme Court precedent, ruled that people with epilepsy, cancer, muscular dystrophy, mental retardation and even
blindness were not “disabled” under the ADA. But, as the bill’s sponsor, Congressman Steny Hoyer points out, the ADA is not about disability, it’s about the prevention of wrongful and unlawful discrimination.

The Amendments passed by an almost unheard of unanimous voice vote in both the House and the Senate. The impressive victory was a result of all stakeholders in the process, business, labor, and advocates for people with disabilities, recognizing that they were all part of the same community and could find common ground to restore the anti-discrimination protections of the law. When we unite around common American Values such as fairness and dignity, we can find commonalities with those who we might usually think of as our adversaries.

More good news came yesterday with the news that the Congress has also passed a long sought-after mental health parity bill that requires health insurers to treat mental health coverage on equal terms with physical health coverage.  The legislation passed in the Senate as part of a larger renewable energy bill by a vote of 93-2, and in the House by a vote of 376-47.  In the words of some of the Senators key to the passage of the legislation:

“This bill provides mental health parity for about 113 million Americans who work for employers with 50 employees or more,” said Mr. Domenici, who has a daughter with schizophrenia.
“No longer will people with mental illness have their mental health coverage treated differently than their coverage for other illnesses like cancer, heart disease and diabetes.”

With this bill, said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, “we are eliminating the stigma and affirming the dignity” of people with mental illness.

Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, said, “Mental illness will no longer take a back seat to physical illness.”

Mental health parity was one of the signature issues of the late progressive champion, Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, who died tragically in a small plane crash while campaigning for re-election in 2002. His work, and those who have continued it, demonstrate that equality, opportunity, and dignity are American, not partisan, goals.

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