Obama signs act that gives voice back to disabled

A new act, signed by the president, reverses changes made last year to Medicare that limited access to speech devices. But an activist says there's more work to be done, 25 years after the ADA was signed into law.

Sean Gardner/Reuters
Former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason, the namesake of the new bill, was an honorary captain as his team took on Houston Texans during their NFL football game in New Orleans, Louisiana September 25, 2011.

President Obama signed the Steve Gleason Act into law Thursday evening, ensuring Medicare and Medicaid include access to speech-generation technologies, New Orleans's WDSU-TV reported.

After a series of sweeping changes at Medicare last year, insurance no longer covered the expensive speech-generating devices used by people unable to speak, according to ESPN.

The act is named after Steve Gleason, the former New Orleans Saints football player who was diagnosed with a serious debilitating illness in 2011.

Gleason was distraught at last year’s developments and called it a “human rights violation” in a Washington Post op-ed.

“We saw it happen far too many times. People who wished to live productively, denied access to the one tool that could liberate them. People in hospice, who had their SGDs seized, so their last words to their loved ones were mere silence,” he wrote on the website of his foundation, Team Gleason.

The former football player's foundation spearheaded the act, but Gleason maintains it was a team effort.

He was elated when the act passed the US House earlier this month and according to ESPN, said, “People, like myself, who are literally voiceless, were heard. Loud and clear […] This legislation may have my name on it, but please know it is the ALS community and the diligent legislators who deserve our applause.”

ESPN noted the technology covered under insurance will now include speech-generating devices like the one Gleason uses to type through eye movements.

“Last year, Gleason requested Microsoft create a way for him to drive his power chair with his eyes. The company unveiled the technology this week, according to a Team Gleason representative. While it’s not available yet, Gleason called the new technology liberating.”

In the meanwhile, the new law will affect patients across the nation.

The new legislation will “ensure that eye-tracking and ‘gaze interaction accessories’ are covered under Medicare for ALS patients with demonstrated medical needs,” WDSU reported.

Politicians also applauded the president’s decision to sign the law.

Senator David Vitter announced on his Facebook Page: “NO WHITE FLAGS! The Steve Gleason Act is official, the law of the land. The President signed my bill this evening. Congrats to Steve and Team Gleason for your tireless, inspirational efforts to get this across the goal line."

This development closely follows the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), celebrated on July 26.

Kaaryn Gustafson, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, acknowledged the ADA made a “dramatic difference” but felt there was still a need for progress.

Although the act provided legal rights, Gustafson noted they could only be exercised “in isolation by filing individual claims with the Office of Civil Rights or by filing suits in federal court.” 

“I use a wheelchair. In the last year I’ve checked into several recently renovated hotel rooms described as accessible online only to find that the rooms were not entirely wheelchair accessible – and sometimes unsafe,” Gustafson wrote. “And while the A.D.A. has for 25 years made it a civil rights violation for taxi drivers to refuse service to persons with disabilities, last month I had three drivers do just that.”

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