It’s probably fair to say that most Americans don’t frequently praise the U.S. Congress for a job well done. That’s likely because it’s not often that Congress bands together to do something that genuinely changes Americans’ day-to-day lives for the better. Congress’ work mostly goes unnoticed, unless you’re a nerd like me who watches C-SPAN.
Lawmakers might occasionally agree to name a post office after a local hero or pass a resolution in support of well-behaved children, but most often their debates are partisan and rancorous. It’s not that they can’t work together – it’s that compromise is often perceived as worse than defeat, so effective lawmaking has become more and more difficult with each incoming Congress.
In 1990, there was near-universal praise when in a display of relative unity, Congress passed – and President George H.W. Bush signed – the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This landmark piece of legislation would improve the lives of people with disabilities by ensuring they had equal access to public spaces and by ending discrimination in the workplace. But like so many things on Capitol Hill, behind the smiles and handshakes, there was a different story.
Not everybody was happy. Many Republicans thought it cost too much, and many Democrats didn’t think the law went far enough. In the weeks leading up to the final vote, a group of disabled activists gathered in front of the Capitol steps, cast aside their wheelchairs and crutches and crawled the 100 steps to the entrance of the U.S. Senate where the bill had been languishing for several weeks.
It’s been almost 30 years since this Congressional kumbaya moment, and in that time the ADA, despite its many limitations, has genuinely improved the lives of people with disabilities. Some of its detractors predicted the cost of compliance would be the end of small business in the United States. It wasn’t. Others predicted it would be much ado about nothing, and that nothing would change. They were wrong.
The ADA is unusual in that it was an act of Congress that resulted in something we can see and touch. The improvements in design and construction are all around us, from handicapped parking spaces in front of stores to wall railings and wide doors in public bathroom stalls. Conventional wisdom tells us that the ADA has done what it was meant to do – protect the disabled in ways the average citizen doesn’t think about.
It would be disingenuous to discount the great strides that have been made since the passage of the ADA. Increasing access has allowed the disabled to better take part in public life. But at the risk of sounding negative, it’s not enough.
The ADA mandates a great deal, but the mechanisms for enforcement are complex and often costly. Disabled people can file reports and grievances, but the only real avenue for action is litigation, often at the plaintiff’s expense. Businesses both large and small can remain out of compliance for years, and only when faced with litigation are they compelled to make changes. The ADA is plagued by ambiguous wording like “reasonable accommodation,” which is open to interpretation.
The law requires state and local communities to enforce its public accommodation statutes often through permitting and inspection of commercial construction and renovation projects. This has helped a great deal, but even with specific standards on the books, challenges abound.
Allow me to cite a personal experience as an example. I hadn’t been in a wheelchair very long and was still learning the basics when I was out shopping at a local strip mall. I had stubbornly refused to buy a handicapped accessible minivan and instead bought an enormous truck with a wheelchair lift. Getting in and out of this truck involved a challenging and bizarre-looking acrobatic act that took about 45 minutes, and sometimes people would stop and watch. Everything had to go exactly right for me to be able to get in and out of the truck by myself, so the importance of an ADA-compliant space was paramount.
On this particular day, no fewer than five people asked me if I needed help. Headstrong as I am, I declined their offers as my thoughts filled with emotions ranging from sadness to frustration to anger and self-pity.
I was so busy feeling sorry for myself, I hadn’t noticed that my handicapped parking space sat on the crest of a rather steep hill. As I swung my wheelchair into position and got ready to transfer, I thought to myself, “See? I didn’t need any help.” Then out of the corner of my eye I saw my wheelchair slowly roll away and then careen across the parking lot toward the street.
“Help,” I whimpered, mostly to myself, looking around for the good Samaritans who had already moved on. The wheelchair rolled into the street, and I never saw it again. Defeated and embarrassed, I got back in my truck and headed to my mom’s house where, luckily, a spare wheelchair awaited.
The ADA undoubtedly has brought a sea change in terms of accessibility. While it’s not realistic to expect that every space be made handicap-accessible, it’s important that we continue our efforts to open up spaces designed for everyone to everyone. There are too many places that should be accessible but are not.
In the next few weeks I plan to visit some of these places and document my findings. Do you know a place that isn’t accessible but should be? Please share your observations by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org