SAN FRANCISCO — Jim de Jong remembers when his buddies took him bowling when he first got out of a rehabilitation hospital after suffering an accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down 34 years ago.
His friends tried to lift him onto the lane area, but the business owner said he didn't have the necessary insurance and turned them away, said de Jong, a wheelchair user since 1976.
The incident happened more than a dozen years before President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, a landmark law aimed to give the disabled equal access to employment, transportation, government services and public accommodations.
"Now I go to bowling alleys and you can roll out onto them — not all the lanes, but a couple of them," de Jong said.
Since its passage in 1990, the ADA has greatly improved the physical environment for people with disabilities, he said.
As the law marks its 20th year, experts and advocates hail its successes, many of them visible — things such as handicapped parking, restroom access, building entrances wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs and sidewalks indented with curb ramps and detectable warnings for the visually impaired. Even ordinary crosswalks at intersections come courtesy of the ADA.
"The ADA was one of the first laws, internationally speaking, that provided civil rights for people with disabilities," said Pratik Patel, president of EZFire, a consulting firm in New York, and a director on the board of the Society for Disability Studies. "It started the ball rolling, and laws in many other countries, like the U.K., are based on the ADA."
The law has performed best in improving physical access to public facilities, said Larry Paradis, executive director of Disability Rights Advocates, a non-profit law firm in Berkeley, Calif. "In the area of technology, it's starting to make a big impact — things like access to the Internet for people who are blind."
But employment appears to be where the law has fallen short so far.
"People with disabilities still are disproportionately unemployed and underemployed," Paradis said. "That's the biggest challenge in terms of making a difference after 20 years."
Only a third of working-age people with disabilities were in the workforce in June compared with nearly 78 percent of people without disabilities, according to the U.S. Labor Department. That means they either had a job or were actively looking for one.
About 19 percent of people with a disability were employed in June compared with 64 percent of people without a disability.
In July, President Barack Obama issued an executive order to increase the number of people with disabilities employed by the federal government. Only 5 percent of 2.5 million federal workers have disabilities, Obama said. Across the U.S., an estimated 54 million Americans are living with a disability.
It's critical for employers to comply with the spirit as well as the letter of the law, said Helen Darling, president of the National Business Group on Health, which represents nearly 300 large employers.
"To maintain our standard of living, we really have to have every human in the country highly productive," she said. "It's in our selfish interests to make that happen. That's what a lot of the Americans with Disabilities Act is about."
Where the law gets tricky is around how much and what kind of accommodation is required for people who have mental or behavioral disabilities, she said. "It's in really hard-to-pin-down-and-respond-to disabilities that it's a challenge."
"It's very hard to find jobs these days without stress," she said, citing the example of someone who might want the same job and pay but without the negatives. "You're in a complicated dilemma then. Even in a big company, you just can't take somebody and say 'We'll put you way over here' unless that kind of job is available."