By Daniel J. Vance


   Welcome to the first of many columns dedicated to getting Americans plugged in and informed about people with disabilities.

   This last year I have been irresistibly drawn to this topic. In 1995 my own daughter Abigail was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that affects one live birth in 2,000. She is paralyzed from the knees down, has a brain shunt, and uses a wheelchair. But nonetheless she is an exceedingly happy and bright 7-year-old girl, one reading at an eighth-grade level and pecking out piano tunes.

   She is one of 54 million Americans classified by the U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services as having a disability.

   Issues affecting people with disabilities will increase in significance the next 20 years as baby boomers acquire aging-related disabilities. While only less than 10 percent of under-21 Americans can claim any kind of disability, 72 percent over age 80 can claim one. And millions of Americans have multiple disabilities.

   Many elderly struggle with hearing-, sight-, and mobility-related disabilities.

   Deciding exactly what constitutes a "disability" has been a challenge for the U.S. judicial system, especially since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

   The ADA defined "disability" so vaguely that it has taken lawyers and courts the last twelve years to set clearer boundaries. And their work isn't finished yet by any means.

  Basically, the ADA defines a disability as a physical impairment that "substantially limits" one or more "major life activities."

   Last January, the U.S. Supreme Court in Toyota v. Williams unanimously decided not to include repetitive stress injuries, e.g., bad backs and carpal tunnel syndrome, in its definition of disability. If it had, the number of "officially" disabled Americans would have risen significantly beyond 54 million. The side effects of such a ruling to society in general, the disabled, and to businesses would have been substantial.

   In future columns you will read of timely legal information affecting persons with disabilities and their families, tips on keeping marriages healthy (a very high percentage of marriages with a disabled family member end in divorce), employment issues, the truth about misunderstood disabilities, the latest medical treatments for birth defects and disabilities, faith-based, other private and government groups assisting persons with disabilities and their families, and profiles of people who have fought the good fight.

   If you have an idea for a column topic, email it to djv@mnic.net.