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Prelude to Drafting the Original ADA Bill - Part 2

Briefing on Harris Poll of People with Disabilities

Between the disappointing and perfunctory pre-release press event on January 28th and the dialogue with the Vice President on January 31st, the Council proceeded with other items on its quarterly meeting agenda. In addition to typical parts of Council meeting proceedings, such as reports by the chairperson, executive director, and committees, two segments of the meeting were unusual and noteworthy. The first of these was described on the Council’s agenda as “Preview Briefing on ICD/Harris National Opinion Survey of People with Disabilities.” The Harris poll initiative had originated as a brainstorm of Council member Jeremiah Milbank. At one of the Council’s June 1985 informal working sessions on what would become Toward Independence, we were wrestling with various disability policy issues. A few members of the Council expressed frustration at the scarcity of solid data about the status, needs, and opinions of individuals with disabilities in the United States. To that time, no serious, in-depth, large-scale study of how having a disability affected people's ability to participate in the life of the community had ever been done. Jerry Milbank expressed his concern that the Council’s consumer forums might be too selective, and that the Council’s conclusions might not adequately reflect the views of average Americans with disabilities. At that point, Milbank commented, “What is really needed is something like a Harris Poll of disabled Americans.” Several other Council members agreed that a national survey of people with disabilities was needed and would be extremely useful.

The Council could not itself commission such a survey on a timely basis, for various budgetary and administrative reasons, so the idea might well have died there, had Milbank not been a can-do person with friends in important places, particularly in disability rehabilitation, services, and research spheres. He took on the project of instigating a Harris poll, starting with organizations in which he exercised control. In August of 1985, the International Center for the Disabled (ICD) in New York announced its intention to commission a national survey of attitudes and experiences of persons with disabilities in America. ICD, of which Milbank was President, was founded by Milbank’s father in 1917 as the first rehabilitation center in America, and expanded its mission over the years to include research, professional education courses, development of model programs, and consultation to corporations on the recruitment of employees with disabilities. To fund such a survey, he enlisted the support of the J.M. Foundation, a philanthropic organization that also was started by his father and of which, again, he was the President. Several other organizations, including the Glenmede Trust Company, the Leon Lowenstein Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Hoffman-LaRoche Foundation, the New York Community Trust, and the Equitable Group and Health Insurance Company, contributed additional funding. Milbank contacted the president of the polling agency Louis Harris and Associates, Humphrey Taylor, and he agreed to conduct the study. Shortly thereafter, ICD announced that it had contracted with the Harris organization for a nationwide telephone poll of individuals with disabilities.

As they began work on the development of the questions and structure of the survey, representatives of ICD and Louis Harris and Associates consulted with staff and some members of the Council to identify areas of inquiry for the survey that might be particularly useful in shedding light on the Council’s deliberations. Andi and I each had extensive discussions with Harris professional experts, who, though they had significant survey expertise, needed our input and considerable guidance on the topics and wording of questions, and on nuances of disabilities and critical policy issues. Subsequently, on October 10th, ICD convened a meeting of disability activists, parents, scholars, and other experts to provide additional input to the Harris agency regarding the population that should be surveyed and topic areas that should be included in the survey questionnaire. Based upon its general expertise in the development of such surveys, Harris chose to base its study on a representative random sample of 1,000 households, contacted by phone. The sample was designed to represent non-institutionalized persons with disabilities who were at least sixteen years old and who lived in households with telephones. The Harris organization’s expertise and experience with sampling techniques were applied to ensure that the sampled group would represent statistically the national population of individuals with disabilities.

A critical concern in designing the survey was determining screening criteria as to which respondents would be considered individuals with disabilities for purposes of interview eligibility. Deficiencies and limitations in the two predominant approaches to defining disability – the health conditions approach and the work disability approach – were described in the discussion in the part on “The Population with Disabilities” in the section of Toward Independence. Having been apprised of the limitations of these approaches, and the pitfalls associated with relying solely on self-identifications of disability, the Harris agency opted for a multi-faceted approach that deemed a survey subject as having a disability if the person: (a) had a disability or health problem that prevented him or her from participating fully in work, school, or other activities; (b) said that she or he had a physical disability; a seeing, hearing, or speech impairment; an emotional or mental disability; or a learning disability; or (c) considered herself or himself disabled, or said that other people would consider him or her disabled.

The Harris firm conducted the interviews during November and December of 1985, telephoning some 12,500 households to obtain 1,000 respondents who met at least one of the definitional criteria. Although the Council had initially hoped the results would be available in time for inclusion in Toward Independence, there was too little time for the Harris personnel to complete the interviews, compile the results, draw conclusions, and report findings to the Council for incorporation into the report before it went to the printer. The most that Harris could do was to provide a “Preview Briefing” on the preliminary findings from the survey at the Council’s January meeting. We were pleased to learn that the initial results of the poll were quite consistent with the findings in Toward Independence and highly supportive of the recommendations in it. Representatives of ICD and Louis Harris and Associates (John Wingate, Executive Director of ICD; Survey Director Dr. Nina Hill of ICD; and Humphrey Taylor, President of Louis Harris and Associates, Inc.) told the Council that Americans with disabilities had lower rates of employment; and were poorer, more isolated from their communities, and more dissatisfied with their lives than any group of people Harris had ever polled.

At the January 29th session, the survey officials were ready to announce some significant and noteworthy conclusions. One of those was that a staggering 95% of people with disabilities agreed that America should increase societal initiatives for education, job training, and rehabilitation to enable individuals to support themselves instead of depending on the government for support. Another significant finding was that three-quarters of those screened in to the study as having a disability, including even those who had only slight disabilities or who did not consider themselves as having a disability, reported that they felt some common identity or common interest with other people with disabilities. According to the survey representatives, this sense of common identity exceeded corresponding figures for other minority groups that Harris had previously polled, and indicated an emerging group consciousness that could lend itself to formation of a political coalition and concerted action. A similar three-quarter majority favored having civil rights protection for people with disabilities coextensive with that accorded other minorities, a view that certainly bolstered the Council’s ADA recommendation.

The preview of the survey findings was stimulating and encouraging to all of us who had worked on Toward Independence, and certainly served to confirm that the Council was on the right track with its recommendations in the report. The full details and range of the survey results would have to await final tallying, validation, analysis, and refinement by Harris and Associates before they would be ready for publication – a process that would take a few more months.

Continue to Part 3: Accessibility of the Statue of Liberty and the “Continental Quest”