In the Public Interest

Psychological research has persuasively demonstrated the pervasive nature of stigma associated with disabilities and the adverse mental health effects of such discrimination. APA was instrumental in the development and passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, submitting comments and providing oral and written testimonies on all aspects of the regulations, particularly as they related to persons with mental disabilities.

The ADA has long been considered the "Civil Rights Act" for people with disabilities. Historically, disability has constituted the most socially overlooked individual difference within the spectrum of diversity (Bluestone, Stokes & Kuba, 1996; Leigh, Corbett, Guttman &Morere, 1996). With its passage, the ADA promised to end exclusion and inequality for the 20 percent of Americans with disabilities. Since that time, the ADA has afforded individuals with disabilities a much-needed and long-overdue opportunity to combat discrimination.

Despite enactment of the ADA, people with disabilities continue to feel the bite of discrimination as a result of disincentives to enter gainful employment, weak economic incentives to employ them and little support and encouragement to pursue postsecondary education. Moreover, the Supreme Court in several decisions has dramatically changed the way the ADA is interpreted, in most cases contrary to what Congress intended.

To change that, APA's Public Interest Government Relations Office (PI-GRO) is working with members of Congress and the administration to garner support for the Americans with Disabilities Restoration Act of 2007 (H.R. 3195), which would amend the ADA by clarifying the definition of "disability" to restore the original congressional intent and to ensure the right of individuals with disabilities to be judged based on their performance rather than by their disability. The measure would seek to ensure that people with certain health conditions, such as epilepsy, diabetes, psychiatric diagnoses, and other mental health conditions that are controlled with medications or other disease management strategies, would be covered by the ADA: Currently, these individuals are routinely dismissed as "not disabled enough" to warrant protection of the statute. PI-GRO recently submitted congressional testimony for a hearing held by the House Judiciary Committee on this issue, expressing APA's commitment to end such discrimination.

Educational efforts

In addition to our work on Capitol Hill, Public Interest Directorate staff is bringing psychological knowledge to bear on issues relevant to improving the lives and opportunities for persons with disabilities. APA's Office on Disability Issues in Psychology works in conjunction with the association's Committee on Disability Issues in Psychology (CDIP) to eliminate bias against and the promotion of equal opportunity for people with disabilities in education and training, research and professional practice. The office serves as an information and referral resource on disability issues; develops and disseminates information on professional and consumer issues; monitors the welfare of these groups as consumers of psychological services; and promotes the development and application of psychological knowledge to address public policy issues affecting them. (Visit www.apa.org/pi/disability.) Together, the office and CDIP have increased the visibility of people with disabilities and made APA and psychology more welcoming. For example, CDIP recently drafted a policy resolution which, if adopted, would reaffirm APA policy on disability issues, including strengthening APA's position on the ADA and enabling the association to pursue federal and state activities that maintain, implement and enforce the ADA.

More services

During each APA Annual Convention, APA dedicates the Resource Room to convention attendees with disabilities so that they may take full advantage of each and every offering. It is managed by the APA Disabilities Issues Office and is housed each year in the main convention center near the registration area.

The office is also spearheading two key programs:

  • The Barriers to Students Project, which will lead to the development of evidence-based information and resources identifying the major barriers to training for students with disabilities and how those barriers can be addressed.

  • The Mentoring Program, which provides mentors for psychology students with disabilities, psychologists with disabilities entering the field and newly disabled psychologists.

The programs and initiatives I've described here are just a sample of the initiatives that the Public Interest Directorate is engaged in on behalf of our colleagues and others with disabilities. We continue to have our work cut out for us. In the eloquent words of Justice Thurgood Marshall when speaking about persons with disabilities, "much has changed in recent years, but much remains the same; outdated statutes are still on the books, and irrational fears or ignorance, traceable to the prolonged social and cultural isolation of the [disabled], continue to stymie recognition of the dignity and individuality of [disabled] people."