ADA 25 in Philly

PCHR joined hundreds from across the city and region on Saturday to commemorate a special independence day — marking the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

From a resource fair in the courtyard at City Hall to an expansive disability pride march through Center City to stirring speeches, those gathered came to both celebrate achievement and outline the challenges that remain. PCHR aids in protecting the rights of those with disabilities through the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance, helping to prevent discrimination in housing, property, employment and public accommodations.

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Among the organizers of the day’s festivities was PCHR Chair Thomas H. Earle, who also heads Liberty Resources Inc., a leader in disability rights and advocacy work in Pennsylvania.

Appeals block PCHR, disabled, from clear fair rules on emotional support animals

PHILADELPHIA, July 23, 2015 – At the cusp of celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, countless residents remain in limbo awaiting final outcome in a potentially precedent-setting case for the agency on whether reasonable housing accommodations include not just service animals but also assistance animals.

A 2014 decision by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations stands to open a new dimension for people with disabilities, but it remains mired in legal fights, despite having survived an initial appeal in the Court of Common Pleas.

“As our understanding of the needs of people with disabilities expands, it is clear that many people simply need small accommodations in order to live independently,” said PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau. “The commissioners’ decision in this case was right and just and fell squarely in line with the Fair Housing Act and HUD’s guidelines.  Unnecessary appeals simply delay justice and equal opportunity to housing for people with disabilities.” plott_hound

In Rubin v. Kennedy House Inc., PCHR ruled that assistance animals deemed therapeutic for people with disabilities are not subject to standard no-pet policies. In fact, they are as viable as traditional service animals that assist those with physical impairments such as blindness or epilepsy.

The case stemmed from an incident involving Jan Rubin, a would-be member at the Kennedy House Inc., a housing co-op. Because her dog, Mira, was not formally trained, the managers considered it a pet, and the housing complex has a no-dog policy. Rubin argued that Mira was a support animal, one that aids in her daily routine and helps to lessen the effects of medical ailments that have compromised her mobility and quality of life.

The Court of Common Pleas agreed. Kennedy House has now filed a second appeal, this time in Commonwealth Court.

At stake is clarification of the rules for city residents and housing providers. PCHR followed guidelines from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on assistance animals that address a segment of society that’s growing ever-reliant on this means of therapy. Whether it’s due to arthritis or autism, panic attacks or post-traumatic stress disorder, increasing numbers of Americans are turning to animals to help center them and allow them to better cope in the world.

Since enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, perspectives on accommodations and definitions of disabilities have continued to evolve. PCHR’s ruling is another example of that evolution.

“Not all disabilities are visible,” said PCHR Chair Thomas H. Earle. “It’s easy to see someone with a wheelchair or a mobility device. But we also have people with autism, intellectual disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder and more. These are disabilities as well. And the law is broadly written so that they, too, can be protected.”

Read the PCHR ruling on Jan Rubin v. Kennedy House, Inc..

Philly ready to celebrate ADA’s silver anniversary

July is when the nation celebrates its Independence Day, and this year, the month will mark a major milestone commemorating another level of independence for millions of Americans.

On Saturday, Philadelphia will join in the yearlong celebration of the Americans with Disabilities Act as it hits its 25th anniversary. The 1990 law prohibits discrimination and mandates equal opportunity for people with disabilities in employment, government services and public accommodations — including commercial facilities and transportation.ada25

“Without a doubt, this is a law that literally opened doors for and eyes to our many neighbors whose talents had been hidden by our own misperceptions,” said PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau. “The legal and cultural impact of the ADA can be seen everywhere, from the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance that guides our work to chirping traffic lights that assist for the visually impaired.

“Most importantly, a whole generation has grown up accepting people with disabilities simply as people,” Landau said. “And that will be the standard for generations following them.”

PCHR is one of dozens of organizations sponsoring the city’s daylong festivities that will kick off with speeches and opening of an outdoor resource fair and conclude with a parade and disability pride march from City Hall to Independence Mall and closing reflections. The action is set to begin at 10:30 a.m.

For people who once were considered part of a hidden population, those with disabilities increasingly are being recognized by and reflected in the American mainstream – from integrated classrooms to fearless super spies on television.

TV shows like "Pretty Little Liars" and "Covert Affairs" featured blind characters that were fearsome.

TV shows like “Pretty Little Liars” and “Covert Affairs” featured blind characters that were fearsome.

covert_affairs

About 1 in 20 school-aged children in Greater Philadelphia has at least one disability according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By conservative estimates, some 1 in 6 Philadelphia households includes someone with a disability. Yet, just 3 in 10 eligible people with disabilities are working, an unemployment rate that has remained stubbornly fixed for decades.

So while there will be plenty of cheers and smiles on Saturday, it’s clear that more work remains ahead, said Charles W. Horton Jr., executive director of the Mayor’s Commission on People with Disabilities. Even after 25 years of concerted efforts, complete and equal access to education, transportation, housing and employment opportunities is not yet in hand, which directly impacts quality of life.

“One thing that people don’t understand is that it’s not just about accessibility,” Horton said. “It’s about independence. It’s about freedom. Once we get people to address that there is an issue, we have the ability to make change that is important.”

Of course, as the birthplace of American freedom, it’s no surprise that Philadelphia has been on the forefront of disability rights, even before federal law was enacted.

Horton’s office traces its roots to the Rizzo Administration, which began to focus on issues faced by those who were “handicapped or had a disability.”

By 1986, Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. formalized the office, establishing the commission by executive order.

The 1993 federal decision in Kinney v. Yerusalim held that whenever Philadelphia streets were updated or resurfaced, curb cuts and other ADA-prescribed accommodations also must take place. Today, such curb cuts are simply part of the landscape, like the various maple and cherry trees that dot the city.

The literally ground-breaking changes that stem from the ADA now are almost taken for granted.

Elevators at train stations. Wheelchair-accessible bathroom stalls. Automatic doors at public buildings. Closed captioned broadcasts. By their commonplace nature, normalcy and acceptance has grown.

But physical improvements are among the easier ones to note and address, said PCHR Chair Thomas H. Earle. He also heads Liberty Resources Inc., a disability advocacy and services nonprofit.

“Not all disabilities are visible,” Earle said. “It’s easy to see someone with a wheelchair or a mobility device. But we also have people with autism, intellectual disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder and more. These are disabilities as well. And the law is broadly written so that they, too, can be protected.”

Quantifying and qualifying who is disabled – a cancer patient vs. a child exposed to horrific violence vs. a teen with HIV – are parts of ongoing discussions, both inside policy circles and among advocates, Horton said.  But only by finding common ground and banding together will meaningful progress continue – progress that ultimately benefits all of society.

After all, the world would be less vibrant without the contributions of Stevie Wonder to music, Charles Schwab to business, Melissa Stockwell or Jim Abbott to sports or John Hockenberry to journalism, among just a few examples.

“We must continue to fight,” Horton said. “It’s not over, because people with disabilities have the right to have a full life, too.”

PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau hangs with Mayor's Commission on People with Disabilities Executive Director Charles W. Horton Jr.

PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau hangs with Mayor’s Commission on People with Disabilities Executive Director Charles W. Horton Jr.

To volunteer for Saturday’s events, contact Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities at shoes100@temple.edu or call (215)204-1356 or Vision for Equality at mdevaney@visionforequality.org or call (215) 923-3349.

PCHR: Global tutor on American civil rights

PCHR again played host to a crop of young scholars from the Middle East visiting the United States through Temple University’s Dialogue Institute.

Study of the U.S. Institute for Student Leaders is a multi-week, multicity program sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of State. It is one of several programs the Dialogue Institute presents.

The exchanges allow students from abroad – in this case hailing from Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon – to get a better sense of American democracy through government and culture in action, with lessons direct from experienced practitioners.

The cohort visiting Philadelphia focused on immigration, race relations, civil rights and enforcement efforts.

Guiding the discussions on this trip were experts from the Mayor’s Office on Multicultural and Immigrant Affairs and PCHR, speaking of the role of local government in immigration and minority affairs.

Deputy Directors Randy Duque and Pamela Gwaltney each gave presentations on the challenges and opportunities for cultivating harmony alongside pluralism in an urban setting. Patricia Coyne, veteran PCHR community relations representative, provided a more on-the-ground perspective and anecdotes.

“We were able to help dispel some misconceptions they had and explore their thoughts on civil rights law,” Gwaltney said. “It was a lively and exciting exchange.”

U.S. Supreme Court wraps eventful, historic term

The latest term of the U.S. Supreme Court sliced through a host of complicated cases, but what emerged for progressive advocates affirmed and reinvigorated their efforts to ensure justice and equality under the law.

Without doubt, 2015 will go down in history for decisions that stand to have generational impact. Arguably, the affirmation of the Affordable Care Act – also known as Obamacare – will mark a watershed moment, as did the implementation of Social Security and Medicaid decades before.

But with rulings preserving the goals of the nation’s fair housing laws and establishing marriage equality as the law of the land, the Supreme Court also offered clear marching orders for agencies such as PCHR.

“With last week’s prudent U.S .Supreme Court rulings, all Americans inclusively gained access to the fundamental rights of fair housing, healthcare, and same sex marriage,” said PCHR Chairman Thomas H. Earle. “It was a powerful set of outcomes for people who often had been left powerless in our society.”

Advocates cheer U.S. Supreme Court ruling to uphold the Affordable Care Act. Photo credit: Jacquelyn Martin, AP

Advocates cheer U.S. Supreme Court ruling to uphold the Affordable Care Act. Photo credit: Jacquelyn Martin, AP

From the court’s marble steps on First Street NE in Washington, D.C. to town squares across the country, reactions to the rulings were as euphoric as they were spontaneous – and colorful. Obamacare proponents could be seen waving brightly colored placards while marriage equality supporters waved rainbow flags.

The lawn of the National Constitution Center filled with supporters along with an array of notable speakers, including Mayor Michael A. Nutter, ACLU of PA Executive Director Reggie Shuford, PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau, Human Rights Campaign’s Christopher Labonte and the Rev. Jeff Haskins of the Unity Fellowship of Christ Church, among others.

Obergefell v. Hodges – and the three related cases bundled with it – proclaimed that the protection of marriage’s rights and privileges among wedded same-sex couples could not be denied in any state. A marriage in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania must be recognized in Alabama or Texas.

The ruling on marriage equality both elicited joy and set the stage for the next civil rights battle for LGBTQ advocates and their allies. While Philadelphia has nondiscrimination policies, in communities across the Commonwealth, someone legally could be fired or evicted on the basis of LGBTQ bias. Until Pennsylvania adopts a nondiscrimination law, that specter will hang like a gloom cloud over even the sunniest wedding and honeymoon memories.

The White House lit up in celebration of marriage equality.

The White House lit up in celebration of marriage equality.

That was a point emphasized at rallies that arose in the wake of the decision.

“Today we celebrate – and recommit to the hard work in front of us,” said Chris Bartlett, executive director of the William Way LGBT Community Center. “That’s to fight discrimination, to insure trans equity, and to insure safe schools for LGBT students.”

And while not as heavily publicized as the other cases, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project stands to have an equally sizable impact.

At issue was the interpretation and application of the Fair Housing Act, specifically its call making it illegal to refuse to rent, sell or otherwise block the rental or sale of a property to someone based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The concern in this case, and others like it elsewhere was “disparate impact” – that a law or policy has a discriminatory effect, even if unintended.

In Texas, there were claims that state and local governments were violating the spirit of the Fair Housing Act by perpetuating segregation, and using federal housing dollars to do it. Under the ruling, subsidized housing cannot solely be placed in isolated, impoverished areas when the goals are to integrate areas and open access to better jobs and schools to the underserved.

Tax-funded housing projects must consider disparate impact, according to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tax-funded housing projects must consider disparate impact, according to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ruling helped chip away at the negative legacy of redlining and other discriminatory policies of the past that continue to shackle too many.  In an age of urban revitalization and tensions spawned by gentrification, the Supreme Court cast an important perspective on both public accommodation and fair housing for communities nationwide.

“As the largest poor city in America, this decision impacts us greatly regarding the effects of development on communities of color in Philadelphia,” PCHR’s Landau said.

“Philadelphia is continuing to go through vast changes and development, this decision reinforces the notion that we must slow down and look at the impact development will have on our communities.”

Another term down, and other high-profile cases wait in the wings. In the meantime, there is plenty to absorb and put into action. As always, PCHR stands ready to help ensure justice and equality reign supreme.