The ADA through a Lithuanian Lens

June 15, 2020

The third in a six part series: how the ‘Americans with Disabilities Act’ has provided an opportunity to empower people through sports globally.

By Global Sports Mentoring Program Leader Kamile Sakalauskaite  

Just a year ago life could not have been more different than what we are now experiencing following a global health crisis. At this time twelve months ago, I had just flown back home from the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program (‘GSMP’) with a freshly written action plan in my hands to empower para-athletes in Lithuania.  Now, even the simplest of things like going for a walk seem like a luxury and staying home is no longer a matter of choice. But for many persons with disabilities this was – and in some countries still is – the reality due to the lack of accessibility and societal prejudices. Interestingly, the current situation together with the upcoming 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (‘ADA’) provide a unique opportunity to advocate for further developments in protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.

With the adoption of the ADA, the United States became the first country in the world to enact comprehensive legislation for the protection of persons with disabilities. It not only explicitly prohibited discrimination against persons with disabilities but also set the rules to ensure equal opportunities in employment and other important areas of life like public services, accommodation, and transportation. Consequently, the adoption of the ADA was a major step in giving back to persons with disabilities their independence, previously limited by the lack of accessibility.

While the ADA is a piece of national legislation, its global impact is undeniable as it was one of the primary inspirations behind the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It entered into force only in 2008, almost two decades after the ADA was adopted. This shows that reaching an international consensus on the framework of disability rights is not an easy task. And the challenges do not end there, since the application of these rules requires a lot of commitment from decision makers as well as financial resources which may vary depending on the country.

However, the power of change lies not only within the decision makers. In fact, it is in each and every one of us and GSMP is the best example of that. Last year I was very lucky to join the program with 14 other delegates from around the world, who from day one became my dear friends. Even a year after the program we still stay in touch and share our achievements or struggles on our mission to empower people through sports.

My action plan for GSMP, on behalf of the Lithuanian Paralympic Committee where I work as the head of projects, focused on creating Parateam – a social brand with strong social media presence to represent Lithuania’s national para-athletes’ team. During the workshops with the GSMP team and my mentorship at National Ability Center in Park City, I gained a valuable network of equally minded professionals to make my action plan a reality. My GSMP sister Albina Zakirova shares a similar experience, ’’I believe that 5 weeks, which I spent in the United States had a significant impact on me personally and on development of the adaptive sports in my region – Udmurt Republic (Russia).  I am really grateful for all resources and connections, which GSMP and University of Tennessee (‘UT’) team provided for us. This experience is priceless and definitely helps me to raise awareness about adaptive sports and people with different abilities. During the 3 weeks at the National Ability Center (my mentoring place), I realized how the ideal adaptive sports center should look like. I wish success and new wonderful participants to GSMP and Team UT!’’.

When it comes to advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities, visibility is a key element. From my experience working at the Paralympic Committee, I saw that parasports was not as popular compared to able bodied sports not because the general public was not interested in it. The reason – almost no media coverage on parasports, so many people were not even aware of it. Therefore, apart from ensuring the best training conditions and competition opportunities for Lithuanian para-athletes, our Paralympic Committee launched Parateam brand. It not only gave our para-athletes a shared identity, but also provided a platform for communicating their stories to empower other persons with disabilities. Ten of our para-athletes even became the stars of a Lithuanian television show where they joined a military traineeship program, breaking any imaginable stereotype about disability.

The state of disability rights is far from ideal and the current health crisis may seem like another setback. However, a strong foundation has already been laid by both national and international legal instruments, like the ADA, which provide tangible tools for disability rights advocates around the globe. Lastly, within the last decade there has been a positive shift in public perception of disability indicating that further change is inevitable despite the circumstances.

Original article: