25 Years of the ADA

In 1990 I was a three-year-old bundle of energy who was just beginning to understand the world around me. My personality was starting to show, which included taking joy in terrorizing my big sister (she wanted to flush me down the toilet – true story).  It was a blissful time. What I didn’t know was that hundreds of miles south of where I was growing up, a landmark civil rights bill was passed that would one day have a tremendous impact on my life.

On July 26, 1990 – 25 years ago today – the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush.

Embarrassingly, today was the first time that I read the actual language of the act. I always knew what it stood for, and what it meant, but to read it was a powerful experience. Here was a law that finally provided people with disabilities the right to employment and to public access without discrimination, and that offered a fair(er) chance at achieving the American Dream. Future buildings would have to be ADA compliant, ensuring equal access for all. It is because of these changes that I can live a productive life today. I can attend college and find gainful employment without thought given to my disability.

That said, it is not a perfect law. Unemployment is rampant for people with disabilities. Buildings built before the act was passed are still inaccessible. Many places that should be more accessible, for whatever reason, are not. There are numerous anecdotes from people who have encountered barriers in public places due to the carelessness and ignorance of others. There is still a long way to go for people with disabilities to feel truly equal in society. The stigma of disability continues to be pervasive.

However, to nitpick the law for its flaws is to miss the point entirely. The ADA was one colossal step in the right direction.

As I’ve said in previous posts, I can’t imagine what life was like for people with disabilities before this law was passed. I am forever indebted to the trailblazers who advocated for this law for years, people who even climbed the stairs of the Capitol one step at a time to get their point across. I had never heard of the Capitol Crawl before – reading about it gave me chills.

While researching the history of this law, I also encountered the opposition raised at the time to its passing, mainly how it would inconvenience business owners to have to make accommodations. For some – such as small business owners – they had a valid point. The costs of accommodation would be taxing on their bottom line. But to hear how others considered it an unnecessary burden and a compliance headache –  that makes me mad. The burden of disability is infinitely more difficult than the added burden of complying with the law. I wish I could have met the person who said that.

Rather than go on a rant, I’d rather commemorate this day by sharing a few examples of hope and inspiration I’ve come across during my journey into disability. The first is Ekso Bionics – one of many companies in the exoskeleton field who are seeking to end physical disability altogether. Paralyzed people are able to walk again with their technology; it is astounding. Even writing that sentence is mind-blowing. As their technology is enhanced and refined, there is no doubt in my mind that it will help me someday to keep walking.

Here is a TED talk about Ekso from 2011 that is one of my all-time favorite TED talks:

My second link is a feature that aired on ESPN on Father’s Day about Pete Frates.

Pete is a former Boston College baseball player battling ALS, who was instrumental in making the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge go viral. It is an honor to think that I go to the same school that he attended. Driving down Beacon Street every day, I pass by the baseball field right before pulling into Fulton Hall. I can’t help but think of him every day when I see the field. I know a couple people who played baseball with him over the years, and can attest to how great a person he is. He is a constant reminder to me of what a positive attitude can do no matter the odds one has to face.

Some of the strongest people I’ve met or have read about do not have any physical strength. Some have trouble talking, or are unable to talk on their own. For some, their disabilities are cognitive rather than physical, yet they overcome their obstacles just the same. To live with a disability on a daily basis, and do so triumphantly, without complaint, is one of the highest forms of living one can achieve. I haven’t quite gotten to that level yet, but I know I am closer because of the shining examples of others.

With Pete’s attitude, and with the help of a bill signed into law 25 years ago today, a full life is possible. Anything is possible.

People who were once paralyzed are now walking again. How cool is that?

One Step Backwards

Today I was at a restaurant that had one step to enter. This normally isn’t an issue for me, however the step was a considerable height, high enough where I needed someone to help lift me under the armpits in order to get in the door.

In my opinion, one step is more infuriating than a full staircase. Although I don’t like that older buildings do not have to abide by the Americans with Disabilities Act and retrofit in order to accommodate people with disabilities, I am a reasonable person. I understand that a building that is old cannot put in an elevator or even a steep ramp. The ADA is meant to provide accommodations within reason. It still frustrates me, but I get that old buildings cannot be made accessible, unless someone invents an elaborate pulley system. That’s a topic for another day.

But one step? Come on. Most buildings that have one step to enter could easily put in a ramp, or even keep a portable ramp as a short-term solution. One step is infuriating. Why not make it level with the street? Why not have a ramp to begin with instead of a step? It isn’t impossible to reconfigure the step into a ramp, and it can be done without ruining the aesthetics of the property.

Instead, the step becomes a barrier. I am lucky that I can still go up a step, even with help. I don’t know how much longer that will be the case though. One step might as well be a giant brick wall to people who are in wheelchairs or scooters. The step basically tells these people that they aren’t welcome, or shows that the owner doesn’t care enough to make their establishment accessible for everyone. It isn’t too much of an exaggeration to call it a form of discrimination. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize this.

On one hand, we live in a society that is more accepting and “equal” than ever before. A lot has changed in the last few years. On the other hand, when the issues facing people with disabilities come to the forefront, people don’t realize that there is still a long way to go. The challenges that stem from a society built for the able-bodied aren’t insurmountable, but they add frustrations that are completely unnecessary, and often insulting. A single step as a barricade to enter a restaurant is just that – insulting.

This isn’t an indictment on everyone in society, because people do care when they are made aware of it. When I had to exit my classroom building last year through the trash room because the facilities department blocked off the only accessible exit in order to remove snow, that angered a lot of my classmates, mainly because they never had to think in these terms before. I used to be the same way, so I can’t rant too hard without turning into a hypocrite. When I was younger and wasn’t disabled, I never thought about these types of challenges. I never thought twice about walking up a step to enter a restaurant. It’s just not something that is ingrained in the minds of the general public.

Now that I’m on the other side of ability, this is all I think about. I am not a natural-born squeaky wheel, but I guess it’s time to put on my advocacy hat.