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The ADA: improving lives for three decades

August 05, 2022
by Ivan Raconteur

It was 32 years ago – July 26, 1990 – when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. The ADA gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications. The ADA is divided into five titles (or sections) that relate to different areas of public life.

Despite its significance, the ADA may be one of those pieces of legislation that doesn’t seem important to those who have not been affected directly. They might even ask, “Why does it matter?”

The ADA has many important provisions, but I still remember the day the light went on and I began to see for myself why it matters in a very personal way.

A few friends and I were living in the Twin Cities Metro Area at the time, and we signed up for a 5k run in Duluth. We decided to make a weekend of it.

A few days before the race, a motorcycle mishap resulted in my having my leg rebuilt and fitted with some titanium plates. We decided to go forward with our plan, with the difference that I would have to sit on the sidelines and cheer on my friends from there.

It was about that time I started to think about the ADA.

Duluth is home to many unique historic buildings which are visually appealing, but not very convenient for those with disabilities, even temporary ones.

The hotel at which we were staying was one such building. The main entrance featured a few steep steps up from sidewalk level with no railings. I had been there many times in the past, but I had never noticed this before.

The entrance was no obstacle to some people, but for those with crutches (or other adaptive requirements), it was a big obstacle. My friends went in to investigate the situation. No problem, the staff at the front desk told them. There was an entrance that would accommodate people on crutches (or in wheelchairs, or using walker, or who simply couldn’t manage the steep front steps. Unfortunately, that entrance was all the way down at the far end of the building.

One thing I noticed pretty quickly that weekend is that every step matters. Adding what felt like about a quarter mile of extra steps did not make me feel very welcome.

This theme continued throughout our stay as we visited restaurants and tourist attractions. Many had been built at a time when accessibility wasn’t a consideration.

There were a lot of frustrating moments, and I couldn’t help but feel I was holding my friends up.

Later that summer, I drove to Seattle to visit some friends. Generally, public places, including rest stops, were very accessible. Other places we stopped were mixed, in terms of accessibility.

I remember a ferry ride  we took in Seattle. When I went up a flight of stairs to the upper deck, I had to use a technique I had developed that involved hooking my crutches over my shoulder, hanging onto the railing, and hopping up the stairs on my unaffected leg. That is trickier than it sounds when one is on a moving vessel.

In contrast to this, fast forward a few decades to my limited mobility following my recent stroke.

Learning to use a walker wasn’t much fun, but it was better than a wheelchair. It gave me more independence.

The thing I noticed most was the number of automatic doors that are available these days, especially at health care facilities. These are the entrances that have an activator you can hit as you approach, so that the door helpfully swings open to allow on to pass. Not only are these doors convenient, but they are much safer for the user.

There are many other improvements that some people may not think about, including accommodations for the visually impaired, or things as simple as curb cuts that eliminate the need to step up or down.

All of these things improve safety and remove barriers for many people.

The ADA has made huge advances but there is still work to be done. Employment opportunities for people with disabilities are still limited. As the population ages, More Americans will experience some type of disability.

I have noticed a greater awareness, and even many small local businesses go out of their way to accommodate their customers with disabilities.

I can say based on my own experience that the ADA increases accessibility, improves the quality of life, and increases independence for many people.


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