I recently had a first-class dinner at a respected downtown dining establishment. Before my dining companion and I left, I excused myself to go to the restroom, only to find the bathroom doors far too small to fit my wheelchair. I had to get out of my wheelchair, crawl onto the floor and enter the restroom from this position.
My dining companion was incensed.
“Wait, isn’t there a law?” she asked.
Why yes, there is.
It’s called the Americans with Disabilities Act, and it was signed into law 25 years ago this month. The ADA provided our country’s largest minority group – people with disabilities – a full array of civil rights protections already common to others, like the ability to enter public and private places and prohibition against employment discrimination. Those of us with disabilities get two independence days in July: our nation’s independence, and July 26, the day a refreshingly bipartisan group of lawmakers joined disability community leaders to watch President George H.W. Bush, one of the ADA’s chief advocates, sign that legislation to give us the freedom to move, work and live.
I remember life before the law’s passage.
As a child with spina bifida growing up in Eastern North Carolina, I found legal, architectural and attitude barriers at every turn. Local school officials prohibited me from attending public school until third grade, and once there classes were often upstairs. School restrooms lacked basic accessible design. In college, if classes were upstairs I had to rely on the good will of administrators – not legal requirements – to have them relocated. As a young professional, I had bosses who neither understood nor cared about basic workplace accommodations liking having a copier or coffee pot within reach of someone using mobility aids.
Soon after ADA’s passage, things slowly changed. Public places and later private businesses created simple design changes like curb cuts and ramps, which allowed me to enter workplaces, buy gasoline and basically boldly go where everyone had pretty much gone before. (Those architectural changes also benefited mothers with strollers, people with bicycles and the elderly). Businesses could no longer decide that a person with a disability was unable to do a job simply because of the disability. Instead, those businesses must outline the essential functions of a job and have everyone who could perform those functions compete on a level playing field.
As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of this historic law, local and national efforts to comply with the ADA have cooled a bit. Architectural barriers are creeping up in Raleigh, even in new buildings. Granted, the law has escape hatches with phrases like “undue hardship” that make it easier for businesses to avoid compliance. It would seem, however, that businesses would instead recognize that ease of entry means more customers and thus more dollars.
The law’s biggest disappointment is in employment.
Only about 17 percent of people with disabilities have jobs, a rate far lower than what was projected in 1990 by the law’s supporters, who believed it would lead to lower unemployment and lower public assistance costs. But now, 25 years later, I’m generally the only wheelchair-user I see in most professional settings. There are complex reasons for this – lack of transportation, regressive court decisions, employer attitudes – but the problem remains.
And that restaurant? The owner was appalled about the restroom doors, having not given much thought to the issue, and plans to take advantage of the ADA’s generous tax credits to reconfigure the bathroom to provide wheelchair access. It’s a small victory. I’m tired of having to point out these basic problems on an almost weekly basis, and I can only imagine what problems someone who is blind might encounter when asking for a braille menu or someone with hidden disabilities might encounter asking for help with work. But progress has been made. Like all declarations of independence, the Americans with Disabilities Act will continue to evolve to help create a more perfect union for all of us, one step – or curbcut – at a time.
Mark Ezzell of Raleigh is a president of Englewood Planning Group.