July 26th of 2010 will be the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Americans With Disability Act in 1990. The ADA is the civil rights lawthat provides persons with disabilities equal protections under the law in employment, governmental programs and public accommodations. I’m grateful everyday for the ADA because it’s thanks to this law and to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act(IDEA) that my 13-year-old autistic son, Charlie, is entitled to be educated, to receive a ‘free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.’ Prior to these laws, we would have been on our own to educate Charlie. It’s not just that he would have limited access to schools and to an education, but that he wouldn’t have had any access to these at all.
‘Access’ refers to a means of approaching, entering, making use of. It makes a world of difference for Charlie to have access to schools and an education. For persons with disabilities, it too often happens that access is denied, and in a very literal sense.
Think of a walk you take down the street every day, or a building (grocery store, office building, doctor’s office, library) that you go into every day.
Is there a ramp? A door designed so that persons with disabilities can readily open it, but also so that they can get through the door comfortably (perhaps they use a wheelchair)? Are restrooms accessible for persons with disabilities and are these located in a part of the building that is easy for them to get to?
(At a facility where I used to take my son swimming, the restrooms for persons with disabilities were up on the third floor. There was an elevator. But there was also a whole set of restrooms on the first floor that weren’t accessible.)
It’s not uncommon for some to see these accommodations as puzzling and even annoying. Cambridge University professor Mary Beard recently blogged about her frustrations with a new door that had been ‘fitted with Health and Safety approved disabled operation.’ Due to the placement of a button to open the door and, too, to the mechanism that makes the actual door open, Professor Beard has found it’s much harder for people to go in and out of the building, especially at busy times. She does not, though, seem fully to note how, prior to having this (admittedly) cumbersome door, persons with disabilities had limited access to the building. Writes Professor Beard:
‘This is disabled access legislation gone mad (or perhaps done on the cheap). I cant actually imagine that wheelchair users (not in truth that I have ever seen one taking advantage of these access arrangements) can be happy with this. I don’t think that they want rage, and bottle necks, and difficulties that those on their feet but weak — all for the sake of a system that does not even reliably work.’
It would be helpful to hear from someone with a disability about her or his experience getting access to the building, both prior to the installation of the new door and after it was installed. Persons with disabilities are, unfortunately, a bit too used to having to cope with a ‘system that does not even reliably work.’
Recently in Chicago, the disability advocacy organization ADAPT held an action to protest the lack of accessibility at a major traffic artery, Roosevelt Road and the Dan Ryan Expressway. A small group of activists blocked an entrance ramp and demanded to speak to an alderman to get the curb cut ramps and sidewalk fixed. The next day, workers were at the site making repairs, as you can see in this video.
Access is a universal problem. Via my friend Emma is a report about being disabled in Greece: Anna, who uses a wheelchair, must often go into the streets in Athens traffic, as shown in this video. Curb cut ramps are few and far between and the sidewalks are where people park motorcycles, and cars.
Disability.gov’s blog has been counting down the days to the ADA’s 20th birthday with a series of posts that have been examining the history of the creation of the ADA and, too, ‘how supporting the rights of individuals with disabilities supports ALL Americans.’ I know the ADA is an American law, but I’d like to say that its provisions should be applied everywhere, because supporting the rights of individuals with disabilities supports EVERYone.
Photo by NationalADAPT.