Kids: Paving the way for our access

Posted by Michael Collins in Life After Paralysis on June 26, 2018 # Mobility

After the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, I became a member of a protected class for the first time in my life. Actually, I am just one of about 40 million individuals with all types of disabling conditions who assumed that this landmark civil rights law would finally eradicate many decades of discriminatory policies and create an environment that was far more welcoming to us.

My spinal cord injury on an Idaho ski hill had cemented my status as a member of that protected class in 1988, two years before the law was passed; once that happened, advocates went to work to help develop some final regulations and standards. Meanwhile, hundreds of us were being trained to educate the masses so that all aspects of society could understand and implement the ADA.

Alas, although implementation was not expected to be easy, it has been extremely difficult at times. We have faced opposition from a cast of characters that included the business community, judges, state and local governments, the media, and more. Despite that, the law still exists and efforts continue to make accessibility a reality throughout society.

My role included time spent as a trainer of hundreds of people about the requirements of the ADA and how it could be implemented cost-effectively. I also served on a technical advisory group that developed state building codes that were substantially equivalent to the federal ADA, then trained local building inspectors about the requirements. At times I worry that I have not done enough, but thankfully many of my peers are doing the same and I know that thanks to their collective efforts changes will continue to occur.

During the past 28 years, I have learned more about accessibility in some surprising ways. Spending time with family members, especially my young grandsons, has introduced me to activities they enjoy that benefit me as well. That began as they started talking, walking and enjoying time spent in museums, zoos, and other public attractions. A built environment that met the needs of children was also revealed to me.

As a person who spends waking hours seated in a wheelchair because of my quadriplegia, I am no longer very tall and for several years I was as short as my grandsons. I also have diminished reach ranges and dexterity, so cannot reach objects above my head or manipulate intricate controls with my hands.

Visiting museums that were set up for children to have hands-on experiences eliminated many of the problems I normally faced when it came to accessing facets of my life. The Smithsonian museums and galleries in our nation's capital are a prime example of good design, as the curators made sure that younger children could learn while touching or getting a good view of whatever was on display. I benefited from that accessibility as well, since the experience was more fun when sharing with family. In many cases, I could supplement what was on exhibit with my own experiences and we could continue those conversations long after we had departed the displays.

The influence of children regarding accessibility extends beyond day trips with grandpa.

In numerous public meetings held to encourage public agencies to install curb ramps, it is not unusual for concerned members of the disability community to be joined by parents who use strollers and want that accommodation while they are pushing their children. Hearing from such diverse parties makes our collective voices even more powerful.

Even though the ADA has been in existence for 28 years, seating at some restaurants and bars continues to be a problem when proprietors choose to use high tables. I have learned that the problem does not exist in family-friendly dining or entertainment venues; I have yet to see any high tables in a Chuck E. Cheese's or similar kid-friendly restaurant since those are the types of establishments my grandsons preferred when young.

Those grandsons have grown a lot, and are no longer the same height as me as they have become--or are becoming--teenagers. They also do not have to deal with rude people standing in front of them at sporting events or viewing windows at zoos and aquariums; they can simply peer over them or force their way to the front of the crowd. Thanks to our shared experiences in seeking access when they were younger, I know that they will also make space for me or my peers at the front of those crowds anytime we are lucky enough to be with them.

© 2018 Michael Collins