Look how far we’ve come
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.