Since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted 26 years ago, people with disabilities in San Antonio and other cities across the nation have seen increased efforts for improving the overall accessibility and inclusivity of the disabled community. But the road to making San Antonio a more accessible city, fully equipped with resources for disabled people, is a long one, more than one person said Saturday morning at the annual ADA Anniversary celebration at the UTSA-Downtown Campus.
“Especially downtown San Antonio, I think (there’s been a lot) done in terms of adding curb cuts and cross walks and slowing things down and doing things for people who are blind, but there’s still a long way to go,” Kitty Brietzke, CEO/Development Officer for San Antonio Independent Living Services (SAILS), told the Rivard Report.
For the past three years, SAILS has thrown an annual ADA anniversary celebration. Since its inception in 1981, SAILS has provided a number of services and resources to people with disabilities in Bexar County and 27 other Texas counties. The nonprofit teaches independent living skills, provides up-to-date information and referrals, and trains individuals on how to advocate for themselves.
The organization’s ADA anniversary celebration is a way to take stock of all that’s been accomplished in the way of services for disabled people, Brietzke said, but also is a time to step back and see what more can be done. Improving access to buildings and other areas around the city is essential, but so is hiring people with significant disabilities when possible, she said.
“It’s so important for employers to realize that people with disabilities want to work. You have nine out of 10 disabled people who want to work, but (companies) only hire about one out of 10,” Brietzke said. “So there’s still a lot of education and awareness that needs to continue.”
SAILS used the occasion Saturday to honor several community leaders with awards for their commitment to upholding the ADA, including State Sen. José Menéndez (D-26) who was honored as SAILS’ Public Servant of the Year.
More than 50 vendors and local and regional organizations who have some connection with or provide services for the local disabled community were present and provided information for visitors on their causes and resources. Featured organizations included the Sunshine Cottage School for Deaf Children, Alamo Mobility, Alamo Area Council of Governments and Canine Companions for Independence.
The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.
In San Antonio, a city with a multi-million dollar backlog of basic infrastructure needs like sidewalks in many neighborhoods, City and community leaders are leading the charge to ensure that ADA compliance is upheld and more widely encouraged.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) recently requested that the City consider a public design competition to improve the accessibility of City Hall for visitors with disabilities, saying that while the City technically complies with the ADA by providing wheelchair access near the back entrance of building at the basement level, “it does not conform to the spirit of the law and presents an issue of discrimination; all visitors should be able to pass through the same iconic front entrance.”
In June, nearly 70 local business, government and nonprofit leaders in the 41st Leadership San Antonio (LSA) class took to the downtown San Antonio streets in wheelchairs to gain perspective on how disabled people in wheelchairs visit popular destinations in the urban core. What they found was that the difficulty in accessing areas like the River Walk and City Hall, for example, signaled that San Antonio is still not entirely a wheelchair-friendly city.
But there’s been some progress over the years, said San Antonio-native Miguel Castro, a SAILS board member who has Spina Bifida.
Compared to the past, now “there are more organizations that are willing to offer help and donate money to different organizations to help make the city more accessible for people with disabilities,” Castro told the Rivard Report. One area that still needs much improvement, he said, is public transportation. Castro said its difficult taking the bus around the city because of the often long wait times, and lack of sidewalks on the way to some bus stops certainly don’t make it any easier.
Castro is studying political science at Texas A&M-San Antonio because he wants to effectively advocate for the disabled community he is a part of, and bring its needs to elected officials.
“I want to be an advocate for people with special needs because I feel that we don’t get as much attention as we need,” he said.
As activists like Castro and other local leaders continue to push for legislation and initiatives that will expand opportunities for those who are physically or mentally disabled to live, work, and play in San Antonio, the disabled community should take pride in its uniqueness, said JoAnne Fluke, a disabled Zumba instructor and founder of Groovability, an organization that brings movement to people who use wheelchairs.
Fluke gave the keynote address on Saturday and followed it by leading an interactive group Zumba session from her wheelchair. Just like the theme for this year’s ADA anniversary celebration states, Fluke said, all people – especially those who are disabled – should “activate and celebrate your abilities.”
“There’s been so much that’s been going on in our world lately…but I really want individuals with disabilities to get excited,” Fluke told the crowd of more than 60 people. “One thing that I pray that we see from our nation is people coming together as one and guess what: the disability community is part of that one.”
Part of uniting and sparking progress for the disabled community, she continued, is building relationships with diverse groups around the city and actively communicating what the disabled community’s needs are.
“We have a unique gift, (as people with a disability),” Fluke said, “so I challenge you today to use (those gifts) to help make our nation become one.”
Is there an ADA compliance issue you’ve observed in the city? Please feel free to share your thoughts in our comments section to spark discussion and awareness.
Top image: Bryan Baldwin (left) speaks with Irma Burkhart about the resources the Texas Dept. of Assistive & Rehabilitative Services offers. Photo by Camille Garcia.