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ADA Access - Where Are We Now

  • Date: 2009/12/10 (Rev. 2010/03/28)
  • Thomas C. Weiss
  • Synopsis : The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed more than two decades ago to expectations of people with disabilities.

Main Document

The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed more than two decades ago, to the great joy and expectations of vast numbers of people with disabilities. Justin Dart worked endlessly to find the ADA signed into law, and Yoshiko worked right next to him. They were certainly not alone in their efforts, and it was finally signed by President Bush.

People with disabilities anticipated greater access to society. What we got was not quite what we expected. More than twenty years later, what do we find ourselves dealing with in American society as far as accessibility - things that ADA law was supposed to have addressed

Take, for example, the people with disabilities in Illinois state's Lake and Porter Counties, as well as the Chicago suburbs. People with disabilities there, through an investigation performed by The Times, have a plethora of issues to deal with. People who use wheelchairs there are unable to enter the front doors of twenty-six different businesses in one city's downtown business district due to concrete steps or high thresholds which are near entryways.

There are parking spaces that are designated as being accessible at a government facility that do not have enough clearance to remove a wheelchair from the side door of a vehicle. A number of bathrooms and stalls at both private and public buildings either do not have enough room to close the stall door with a wheelchair inside, or are completely inaccessible. Some of the buildings do have ramps, but people using wheelchairs can't open the doors and enter the building without taking the risk of crashing backwards down cement steps, or rolling backwards down the ramps.

There is even a business that actually sells wheelchairs that has a ramp which is twice as steep as the standard recommended by the ADA. Obstacles such as these, greater than twenty years after the signing of the ADA into law, speaks clearly about the lax attitudes of business owners and city officials where the law is concerned. It also speaks rather loudly about the perspectives these same businesses and cities have where people with disabilities are concerned.

The state of Illinois is far from alone in that apathetic perspective towards ADA law. While The Times discovered seventy-one separate barriers to people who use wheelchairs in Lake and Porter counties and the Chicago suburbs, the barriers the paper has uncovered are present across America. Some business owners are saying the buildings they are in are too old to modify. What they are really saying is that they are unwilling to modify their buildings. What they are really saying is, 'We know we can get away with it, so we are doing it.' What they are really saying is, 'We do not want people with disabilities at our business.' Even some businesses that do comply are doing so at minimal standards, creating facilities with highly-questionable accessibility.

What about entire towns, cities, and suburbs though? Street-level accessibility remains a very real issue for people with disabilities in America, something that should not exist more than twenty years after the ADA was signed into law. It makes one want to resurrect the students who took sledge hammers to street corners.

People who use wheelchairs are finding themselves riding down entire city blocks in search of a ramp to get onto the sidewalk. The situation leaves them in the middle of traffic, dealing with cars, trucks, and very dangerous conditions, risking injury or even death. Should someone using a wheelchair get hit by a car, truck or someone riding a bicycle in the street and end up in the emergency room, the cost of providing health care for them would have paid for the curb cut that would have found them on the sidewalk in the first place.

When accessibility features are added to businesses or to city streets, who is doing the design for the features? Many times it is someone who does not experience a disability, leading to uninformed and poor design. For example, what good is a bathroom stall that a person can get a wheelchair into if they cannot close the door behind them? What use is an accessible parking space with no room to remove a wheelchair from the vehicle when all of the spots are full

ADA law states that buildings that were built prior to establishment of the law are exempt from the law, unless they remodel or change the building. This desperately needs to be changed. There is talk concerning, 'the spirit of the ADA,' and so forth - yet the fact remains that if American society is to be accessible to everyone, accessible it must be. For twenty years and more this nation has pursued, 'the spirit of the ADA,' and the results have been mixed. Now is the time to pursue full-accessibility, with every business, town, city, and suburb becoming fully-accessible to everyone.

One-fifth of Americans experience a form of disability. As the baby boom generation continues to age, more people will as well. People with disabilities will always be a part of American society. We will always be a part of the workforce, as well as consumers. People with disabilities continue to be a part of the business realm, and use city streets. There is simply no more justification for the pursuit of a, 'some have to comply while others do not,' approach to accessibility in America.

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