Image of Kimberly Tissot in the foreground with the city of Greenville behind her.

Breaking Barriers: Unraveling the ADA & Local Government’s Role in Disability Equity

Start listening

Jump to Transcript

Today we sit down with ADA expert and advocate Kimberly Tissot to explore the far-reaching implications of the Americans with Disabilities Act on our local communities and the ongoing fight for true inclusion. We discuss the role local and state governments play in ensuring accessibility and the work of Kimberly’s organization, Able SC, in breaking down barriers for people with disabilities. Learn about the importance of normalizing disability, inspiring legislative victories in South Carolina, and the transformative power of advocacy. Tune in now to learn how we can all be a part of creating a more inclusive world.

Kimberly Tissot Bio.

Learn more about Able SC.


Katy Smith: Kimberly, thanks so much for joining me today to talk about the work of Able SC and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Kimberly Tissot: Thank you so much for having me.

Katy Smith: Great. Well, so let’s start with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It passed in 1990. Most people know there is an ADA, but they probably really just think about accessible parking spots and curb cuts and ramps.

But it’s so much more comprehensive than that. So can you give folks an overview of the ADA and what it means for all Americans?

Kimberly Tissot: Absolutely. So the ADA was passed in 1990 and it was actually disability led. So it was a, a movement that was passed and really pushed by people with disabilities. We had to engage legislators, we had to engage businesses to really support the idea of including people with disabilities in, in American society.

So the ADA is very much more than ramps in curb cuts. The ADA is an anti discriminatory law that protects the rights of people with disabilities to be included in everyday America. And so what that looks like is, of course, having access to the community. So making sure that the, the community is accessible for people with disabilities, but also employment.

How are employers hiring and engaging people with disabilities? You cannot discriminate against people with disabilities or employees with disabilities. So there’s protections in place to protect potential employees and employees with disabilities. So there’s an obligation on that employer side. Local government has a responsibility to ensuring that all programs and services are open and accessible to people with disabilities.

As well as just community programs. So a lot of nonprofits, a lot of private businesses, they all have to comply with the ADA to making sure that policies, procedures, all operations are inclusive of people with disabilities.

Katy Smith: Let’s talk kind of specifically about local government and, and I think about an example that I heard of a, of a gentleman who wanted to go to his, this is here in Greenville County.

He wanted to go talk to his city council. About concerns he had about accessibility of city hall. So he went to talk to council in their open comment period and went up to the podium, which was standing height, not wheelchair height, and someone went to get the mic to hand to him and the mic was affixed to the podium, which kind of proved the entire point without even having to say a word.

And I’m sure you hear stories and see things like this all the time. Can you talk about kind of the opportunities and struggles that local governments have in meeting the requirements of the law and just doing what’s right to make a truly inclusive city?

Kimberly Tissot: Yeah. And podiums are a nightmare for everyone anyways. I’m four 10 and, um, walk on crutches. And so going up to podiums, I’m always, I always use that as, as a great example to model, you know, what does accommodations look like, but also model what, what barriers look like, um, and simple barriers that no one has thought about. But with local government, they have a significant responsibility.

So not only do they have to make sure that every single piece of operations within that local government must be accessible, must have program accommodations. And when I’m talking about program accommodations, we aren’t talking about separate programs. We do not want segregated programs just for people with disabilities.

We want to be integrated and there is a very siloed approach in the community now where people will say, well, you need to go to a disability organization for that. No. Everyone has the responsibility to provide equitable services to people with disabilities. When we’re thinking about local government, think how broad this is.

This is city council meetings. This is your police, this is your fire department. This is libraries oftentimes. And so they have a responsibility under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, um, Section 504, and also the Americans with Disabilities Act and under Title Two of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

And so they have to have an anti-discrimination policy. They have to make sure that they have a transition plan. So if any of the buildings are not accessible, that they have a plan in place to make them accessible by a certain amount of time. And that means if there’s any alterations to a building, that they do not have an excuse to not make it accessible.

And, and again, I I wanna remind folks that local government, state government, private entities, they’ve had 33 years to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. And we still see these barrier. But not only for the accessibility components, so making sure there’s no barriers, but also they’ve got to follow, um, title one with making sure they’re hiring inclusively.

If they have 50 or more employees, which many of them do, they have to have a designated ADA coordinator to ensure that they are complying with every aspect of the ADA. They have to have notices. Their websites have to be accessible. Their application process has to be accessible, and those are a lot of the barriers that we still see today is local government may not understand their responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and some of this can be very simple.

Even if they’re, they create a video, and I’ll use this as an, as an example, they’re creating a video of what their local government is doing or maybe highlighting the work of the mayor or, or the police department. They’ve got to make sure that that video is accessible for people who are deaf and so, and blind.

So thinking about do they have captioning? A lot of them don’t have caption. If they are, you know, referring to maybe a map, they have to have a audio description of that map. Um, and so it, it’s, it’s not complex if you have a plan in place. And so again, it’s, it’s not difficult to comply with the ADA. It’s not expensive to comply with the ADA, but you do have to have a plan in place.

Katy Smith: And what role does your organization play then in helping, encouraging, nudging, urging?

Kimberly Tissot: Absolutely. So we are an advocacy organization. And what we do is, is we, we are not a legal entity, so we, we are not going to go to a lawsuit. We want to help. And so we wanna make it right for the, the people with disabilities that live throughout South Carolina.

And we are, again, a very large population. And so we can actually come in and do ADA assessments, making sure that the buildings comply with the ADA and making recommendations kind of outside of the ADA, because the ADA is very simple and bare minimum. And so how else can we push it to, to make it more inclusive?

We also do a lot of trainings. Um, we help with policies, creating policies that comply with the ADA, and also talk and, and help with the program modification. So if you have a program that’s not working for a person with a disability, how can we make it? How, what are the modifications that are needed?

So really just helping, uh, helping city, uh, local government and, and city councils. Really think outside the box. When they’re talking about equity and, and inclusion.

Katy Smith: Outstanding. So in spite of the ADAs protections for the civil rights of people with disabilities, there are still many ways our communities fall short.

And I’m guessing that this is sometimes in violation of the law and other times within the law, but still no good. Can you talk a little bit about what you and your consumers tend to see in South Carolina in this regard?

Kimberly Tissot: Yeah, absolutely. And I am a person with a disability as well, so I do have a physical disability and I’ve had a physical disability for most of, uh, my life, um, I, I did, uh, lose a leg due to childhood cancer at the age of two. So I’ve been living this and, and living in the environment in our communities for, for decades and seeing all of the barriers that truly exist. So after needs assessments and needs assessments throughout the country, but in our state as well, the number one barrier for people with disabilities are attitudes towards us.

Um, so not really including us in programs and activities and services. Um, when we have all of these federal protections in place, we are still afterthoughts. Um, and I will, you know, as a person within a disability society, we’re not included in the way that it’s designed and, and we have significant protections and folks don’t always respect the rights of, of people with disabilities.

So it’s an ongoing fight, even after, you know, the ADA passing in 1990, that was, we were all so hopeful that this was going to be the new direction for America. And here today in 2023, we are still fighting for basic rights.

Katy Smith: So attitudes, I mean, I can see how that would shape everything else would trickle from that.

But how do you get at attitude change? What’s the work that your organization’s doing or that any of us can do as allies and, and neighbors and friends?

Kimberly Tissot: Yeah, and it’s just really normalizing what disability is. One in three people in South Carolina have some type of disability, and remember, disability is much more broad than just physical, um, disability.

So in the ADA it means anything that really majorly affects your day-to-day living. And so that could be eating, walking, seeing, hearing for some examples. But so people with intellectual developmental disabilities, people with psychiatric disabilities, people who are blind, deaf, people with physical disabilities, healthcare conditions are also considered disability.

So when they’re, we have such this large population, we need to really focus on efforts of uplifting the disability community, but we have to uplift the disability community by being included. So when folks are talking about DEI initiatives, we’ve got to include disability because disability intersects with all populations.

And so some of the work that we do around this is really working on the individual, the local and state area. And for individuals, we want as many people in the community with disabilities as possible. We want to really change that perception, but also build advocates so that we can make change in the community.

On the local and state level, of course, we’re, um, still combating really old pieces of legislation that do not protect the rights of people with disabilities. And so we’re, you know, working on the systems level as well to, to make a difference. The biggest thing that listeners can do is really think about how are you being inclusive of people with disabilities?

And so we don’t want special treatment. We want to be in an equitable community, we want to have access to the same services, the same programs, the same stores, um, employment opportunities. We have families and you know, so we want the same thing as other Americans, but let’s step back and see how are you… how are you in being inclusive of our community? And, and that’s a, that’s a whole different conversation, um, that we could go on for hours and hours. But just thinking through the process. So if you’re a business owner, how are you opening your business? You have a lot of responsibilities under disability rights legislation from website accessibilities, so making sure your websites are accessible to people who are blind, is your store compliant with ADA standards. And ADA architectural standards may seem like blue lines and parking spots, handrails, ramps, but there’s a measurement for every single code. And so making sure that your building is compliant, making sure that you have alternative simple adjustments that you can make.

And for example, that I use with a lot of stores is if your counters are too high for somebody with a disability to come up and, and check out, think about, you know, how can you modify that? Maybe having an adjustable credit card machine that can lower, um, so that someone can actually pay on their own. So really just thinking outside the box, but really making sure that you’re including everybody in all of your planning.

Katy Smith: Excellent. Well, so you spoke about legislation and policy change does have sweeping impacts, hopefully. Can you give an example of a legislative victory y’all have had in recent years?

Kimberly Tissot: Yeah, so we’ve been able to pass pretty progressive, uh, pieces of legislation here in South Carolina, have really uplifted South Carolina as being a model for other states as well, which is really exciting. So one of the bills that we were able to pass, and we passed this in 2017, was the Persons with Disabilities Right to Parent Act. And that act protects the rights of disabled parents. We had a law in the state that said if you were a parent who had any type of disability, you could actually have your child removed on the basis of that disability versus no abuse and neglect.

And so that was something we immediately had to change. Obviously that was in violation of the Federal Protections for People with disabilities and, and the ADA a is a significant law. But we also have the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which really mandates federal government to be, uh, inclusive and anti discriminatory towards people with disabilities, but also anybody that receives government funding.

So that does impact a lot of state agencies in our state. But there, this particular law, we were able to put in protections so that people with disabilities can be parents and can be protective. There’s no one size fits all to parenting, and I’m also a disabled parent. I have a child, and I adopted from our state government.

It was not the easiest thing to do in the very beginning. And so we really saw the obstacles that really existed in, in our communities and in our state. So now with this law, people can be parents without potentially losing their. And they can get, receive the supports that they need. People with disabilities can adopt children.

Just because you have a disability does not mean that you can’t parent. And so that’s something, that’s one of the pieces of legislation that we’ve really been able to change and, and, and changing that attitudinal discrimination um, as well. The most recent bill that we passed was last year. South Carolina was one of the states that participated in a federal law.

It allows people with certain types of disabilities to be paid less than minimum wage. And there were stories where people were paid 15 cents an hour, 25 cents an hour. Um, and this is still happening today. We’re not fully assisted with transitioning people who are being paid less than minimum wage into minimum wage yet, but we have two years to do this.

But now in South Carolina moving forward, and once we passed the two years, uh, nobody will be allowed to make less than minimum wage in our state. And we were the 14th state uh, to be able to end some minimum wage in, in, throughout the country. So Wow. We’re really excited about that.

Katy Smith: The 14th is still too late, but how nice to be on the leading edge of something in South Carolina and I can see how it’s an economic mobility issue that now you have people with disabilities who can earn closer to a living wage, at least beyond minimum, and then be able to sustain themselves in community, which is exactly where anyone would wanna be.

Kimberly Tissot: Right. And, and disability you know, something for listeners to hear too is, disability can hit at any time of your life, right? And so think about how would you want to move forward If you were somehow had a disability tomorrow, would you want your life to stop? Would you want things to be removed from you? Would you want not to be able to go and have access to services or even simple things in the community?

And, and I just wanna remind people that, you know, disability is more common than you think. And so with one in three in our state, I just think we can do a lot better than we’re doing.

Katy Smith: What are some big policy goals that you all have at, at whatever level, local, state, federal, in the coming months and years?

Kimberly Tissot: So we have a, a number of different legislative, uh, goals at the moment. And so I’ll, I’ll share a couple. So the first one is, disability history, um, and disability rights is not taught in the education system and we don’t learn about this. And so students with disabilities are not learning that they have rights at such an early age, but also non-disabled people are not understanding that the disability rights piece and understanding that we want, um, America to be equitable.

And America’s very diverse as well. So we wanna make sure that there’s, there’s supports and, and systems in place to really include everyone. So we are hoping to introduce a bill to, uh, mandate that K through 12, a month dedicated to disability rights in history where people are learning about disability rights.

People are learning about, uh, famous people with disabilities. People are learning about the, the abilities that people with disabilities have to be, um, in mainstream society. And so, we’re really excited about that one. I know growing up in South Carolina, having a disability at such a young age, I did not know I had rights until I got into college.

And so that’s something that we’ve got to do better, but also that’s an another strategy to really push that inclusion piece. Um, because the more that everyone knows about the, the rights of people with disabilities, the more that we can be ready for future generations to be more inclusive. And then just another one.

It’s, it’s just simple. We have a, um, there’s a, a lot of times people are assumed that they cannot make decisions on the basis of disability, and so we are trying to also change some of our guardianship laws in our state to add another protection. So it’s just, um, having a, like a supported decision making it, it’s popping up throughout the country.

Making sure that we aren’t removing the rights of people with disabilities by putting adults in into guardianship situations, that we are supporting them with making decisions, and, and that’s just like anybody. Nobody really.. People with and without disabilities, nobody really makes a decision on their own.

So we always give an example. When you buy a car, you usually research or you talk to somebody about the type of car that you’re looking. But for some reason, when people with disabilities need that same support to make decisions, we’re held to a different standard. And so we definitely want to even that out, um, and put in all the protections as possible to make sure that people with disabilities keep those rights.

Katy Smith: That makes so much sense. I mean, to your exact point, we all need supports and making decisions, and then we all need the freedom to use those supports to then make it in the end. So that should be equitable across populations. Yeah, for sure. Well, why don’t you wrap up by telling us about Able SC, the work you do, and how people can get involved?

Kimberly Tissot: Yeah.

Well thank you so much for this opportunity. So, Able South Carolina, um, we were established in 1994 and we were developed by people with disabilities because we were tired of hearing that.. We were tired of non-disabled led organizations, uh, making decisions for us. And so we created, and, and I was not part of “we” in 1994 , but I came on at 2010.

Um, but the organization was created to really meet the needs of the individuals in our state with disabilities. And so we look at it within the disability lens of, of every, every service that we provide, we create programs around these needs. So our staff are, um, 90% of people with disabilities. We have about 60 people on staff and we provide, um, so much.

We have two, uh, three priorities that we work on. So it, we first equip people with disabilities, so we work one-on-one with individuals with helping them meet their goals and, and overcoming the barriers that they may be experiencing in the community. We also educate the community. So we really break down those societal stereotypes to help the community really embrace equity for all people.

And so we will help businesses, um, employers with learning their responsibilities under the ADA and how to hire equitably, but also, um, how to have customers, um, with disabilities because we also sometimes have money and can contribute to the community. And then the next, the last one is advocacy.

And so we do everything that it takes to remove the barriers and we don’t stop until we make a difference and, and we, we, you know, either it’s legislative change or it’s that community systems change that we’ve got to really push within local government, state government, or within the private sector as well.

Katy Smith: Outstanding. Kimberly, thanks so much for being here today and for all that you do and we’ll link all this information in the show notes so everyone can connect going forward.

Kimberly Tissot: Well, thanks again for having me.

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at This is a production of the Greenville Podcast Company.

Image via Kruck20 on Canva.

Join the discussion