Several winters back I entered a restaurant on Main Street in Carrboro by getting out of my wheelchair and pulling it up the steps.
It wasn’t until several weeks later that I found out there was an accessible back entrance. The hostess never mentioned it to me as she stood awkwardly behind her podium.
Numerous restaurants and shops in Chapel Hill and Carrboro have steps in front of their business. More often than not, these businesses have no sign pointing to an accessible entrance. Some do not have an accessible entrance.
Rather than trying to search for an accessible entrance, I usually end up never going in.
“Separate but equal” is normally associated with the Jim Crow laws that kept people of color from using the same facilities as whites. There were “colored” sections on buses, in restaurants, and in theaters. Separate schools and universities were opened to ensure white students didn’t have to learn with black students. Some businesses had separate entrances, tables, and counters. The civil rights movement helped to overturn Jim Crow laws for people of color. Unfortunately, people with disabilities continue to face segregation on a daily basis.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990, was intended to ensure Americans with disabilities the right to integrate fully into society. Like other civil rights legislation, the ADA covered a wide breadth of topics including employment, public entities, accommodations, and telecommunication. The law was enacted to break down the numerous barriers that were intentionally and/or unintentionally keeping people with disabilities out of mainstream society.
However, many businesses get around ADA building regulations. Some property owners have their building deemed a historic site or monument, exempting them from having to make accommodations unless they make substantial renovations. Even with renovations, businesses can argue that the adaptations would cause too much of a financial burden. They could also make the case that the ADA building codes would ruin the historic significance. Some businesses attempt to appear to be inclusive by following ADA building codes at a bare or below minimum. Examples include placing the accessible doors in the back of the building (which may be locked for security reasons) or placing a slow-moving lift by the steps (which requires a key and the key happens to be inside).
But ignoring the ADA can have significant consequences to the community. A significant proportion of Orange County residents have some type of physical disability, and that number is growing as the Baby Boomers age. Cutting out that population from spending in these restaurants and stores cuts down on potential profits. It can also cut down on potential tax revenue from younger individuals with physical disabilities. With fewer accessible places to work, a large percentage of people with disabilities rely on SSI and/or SSDI.
Separate but equal has another side effect for people with disabilities. It can equate to wasted time, which is spent looking for accessible entrances, bathrooms, elevators, etc.
Take an average week for me. I spent 30 minutes looking for the accessible entrance in the snow one Monday this winter. When I found it, the door was locked and I had to ask a stranger to talk to the front desk person to let me in.
My Tuesday was spent desperately searching for the one accessible bathroom stall in a room full of vacant “able-bodied” stalls. The business owner than informed me that I needed to use the bathroom down the hall marked “Staff Only.”
Wednesday included attempting to find a handicapped parking space so that I could get my wheelchair out of my car. Thursday had me going up and down a sidewalk several times to find the curb cut, and Friday I struggled several minutes with a door that was too heavy for me to open. These wasted minutes add up to hours each month. Expanding this much energy to participate in society leave many to stay at home rather than struggle.
Allowing businesses to disregard accessibility issues relegate people with disabilities to second-class citizens. Separate has never been equal. So, next time you go out, take note of the entrance you take to your favorite restaurant or local store. Is there a separate door marked as accessible? Is that door easy to find? Unlocked? At night, is the pathway lit up so you can get to it safely?
How would you feel if you had to use a separate entrance every time you went out?
This is Mia Ives-Rublee’s first column for The Chapel Hill News, part of a new series by people living with disabilities in our community. She has a master’s degree in Social Work and is a research assistant at UNC. Write to her in c/o email@example.com