Look how far we’ve come

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

On July 26, 1990, our nation en­acted the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act (ADA). Her­alded as the strong­est civil rights leg­is­la­tion for per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties, I would like to share what the im­pact has been for me and the es­ti­mated 54 mil­lion Amer­i­cans who­have ben­e­fited from the law. The ADA awak­ened the nation to ac­ces­si­bil­ity and of­fered the pro­tec­tion of the ba­sic rights of those with dis­abil­i­ties so they can boldly go where ev­ery­one else has gone be­fore.

Be­fore the pas­sage of the ADA, when I went to a movie, I would of­ten be told by an usher that I was a fire haz­ard be­cause I was block­ing the aisle. Back then, I had to park my wheel­chair on the slope of the aisle in the theater, wedged up against a theater seat to avoid rolling down to the bot­tom. I usu­ally chose the mid-theater area for an even line of sight and prayed no one would plow into me from be­hind with but­tered pop­corn and soda. There was no other place for some­one in a wheel­chair to sit, and some­times I was asked to leave the theater “be­cause the fire chief said.” It was hu­mil­i­at­ing and de­hu­man­iz­ing. To­day, the­aters have des­ig­nated spots on level ground for those in wheel­chairs. I can even see a movie with an­other friend in a wheel­chair — and we can sit to­gether. How cool is that? Re­cently, I heard a fel­low movie theater pa­tron in the same row say, “These seats suck.” Then he moved one row higher. If he only knew the his­tory and hard­ship to get these seats.

So­ci­ety has changed. The num­ber of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties is grow­ing in the work force, in the com­mu­nity, on pub­lic tran­sit, in gro­cery stores, at sport­ing events … we’re ev­ery­where. Gone, for the most part, are the days of in­sti­tu­tions, steps, dis­crim­i­na­tion and neg­a­tive at­ti­tudes to­ward “those peo­ple.” Busi­nesses dis­cov­ered that there is money to be made when their fa­cil­i­ties and prod­ucts are ac­ces­si­ble to all of their cus­tomers.

Over the past 20 years, I have watched closely and par­tic­i­pated as an ac­ces­si­bil­ity ex­pert as we built a new air­port, laid miles of side­walks, en­gi­neered low-floor buses for eas­ier ac­cess, walk sig­nals that “chirp” for vis­ually im­paired pedes­tri­ans to know when to cross, ac­ces­si­ble hous­ing, place­ment of curb ramps, low­ered coun­ters at banks, talk­ing el­e­va­tors, braille signs, ac­ces­si­ble technology where com­put­ers speak, cap­tion­ing on TV, au­dio de­scrip­tion, web ac­ces­si­bil­ity, video re­lay and even ac­ces­si­ble work cu­bi­cles.

As a long­time em­ployee of Cap­i­tal Metro, I have the ut­most re­spect and ad­mi­ra­tion for the com­mit­ment and ded­i­ca­tion the em­ploy­ees and the board have shown in go­ing the ex­tra mile to make the bus and rail sys­tem ac­ces­si­ble. As I en­cour­aged them to con­tinue com­plet­ing projects, I told them, “The world wasn’t made in­ac­ces­si­ble in one day. This may take time to fin­ish all the ac­cess needs.”

Cap­i­tal Metro be­came the first tran­sit author­ity in Texas to have 100 per­cent of its bus fleet lift-equipped in 1993. To­day, thou­sands of peo­ple us­ing wheel­chairs board lo­cal buses. The early protest chant was “We Will Ride,” and we re­ally do. Austin is for­tu­nate to have such a com­mit­ted tran­sit author­ity, and the city has been na­tion­ally rec­og­nized as an Ac­ces­si­ble City of the Year by the Na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion on Dis­abil­ity.

It is not easy to in­ter­pret fed­eral law, and some busi­nesses de­cline out of ig­no­rance and oth­ers out of sheer re­sis­tance to change. And, yes, peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties are sure to com­plain. We com­plain so that the fu­ture will be made right for ev­ery­one. Those born be­fore 1990 or who acquired a dis­abil­ity af­ter 1990, may never know the protests, con­gres­sional tes­ti­monies, meet­ings, mit­i­ga­tions, heartache and sweat in the mak­ing of the ADA, but they sure are reap­ing the ben­e­fits.

As I age grace­fully in Austin, I thank God ev­ery­day that I am an Amer­i­can, that I am an Amer­i­can with a dis­abil­ity, an Aus­ti­nite with a dis­abil­ity, and that I live and play freely, just like any­one else. Though more work needs to be done, we can cel­e­brate ev­ery­thing that we’ve al­ready ac­com­plished.

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