Little Did I Know: The ADA at 25

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on July 10, 2015 # Advocacy and Policy

As you are no doubt aware, things are heating up for the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26. There is the ADA Legacy Tour Bus touring around America, a traveling exhibit promoting all things disability. I think it's in Wisconsin this week. Or if you are the Los Angeles area, there is a big ADA 25 celebration in the Dodger Stadium parking lot on the 26th. The purpose: to top the Guinness World Record for most wheelchairs in a continuous line. Check it out. It's sure to be a hoot.

I was injured in 1996, six years after the ADA was enacted, so, unlike millions, I have never experienced a non-ADA world. From my humble West LA, middle-class perspective, the law has done the trick. Except for an occasional pain in the keister like a restaurant where I have to use the kitchen entrance or an idiotic airline attendant who doesn't know his way around an aisle chair, I have rarely felt un-accessed or unaccommodated in this paralyzed life. Naive that I was, I figured that the world had changed, at least in US, and all people with disabilities could pretty much go anywhere or do anything like any other boneheaded American.

I was dead wrong.

I apparently was confusing America with Disneyland, a veritable Disneyland of total disability access. Wheelchair wise, I live a safe and secure existence. I rarely ride city buses or airline transports, don't eat at fast food joints like Burger King or Taco Bell, and am extremely fortunate not to need vital social services that are often second-rate or non-existent. I do ride the LA Metrorail which has little space to park a chair and demands that you take the urine-drenched elevator to get out of the terminal building. Again, irritating, and smelly, but not life-denying.

To know more about this issue, I decided to talk to someone who lived in the real world of disability. This someone to me was Tim Fox, the co-founder of the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center in Denver. Mr. Fox, a wheelchair user from a sports accident, litigates all number of disability-related law suits all over the country. He'd love to branch out into other areas, but he can't – the disability work is non-stop. His firm is currently suing three American cities for inadequate curb ramps; suing or have sued Burger King and Taco Bell for inaccessible facilities; suing Chipotle for trying pull a fast one and substitute “customer service” for universal accessibility; and suing a number of hotel chains because their airport van service is inaccessible. You get the idea. A lot of businesses and heck, even cities, don't give a rat's tail about the ADA after twenty-five of being reminded that it is THE LAW OF THE LAND. To them, it's just a nuisance, like old ladies who complain the coffee is too hot.

Small-minded scofflaws aside, another thing that the ADA has yet to foster is a unified disability community or political contingency in America. Usually, major civil rights legislation engenders and sustains a civil rights movement. From Stonewall to today, all gays belong to the current, extremely successful gay rights movement. Despite bringing all disabilities groups together for passage of the ADA, the disability world today remains a loose collection of fractured fiefdoms, all with their own agendas, funding sources, and single-minded followers. Disability groups, from the MS Society to the Paralyzed Veterans of America, often compete for the same precious financial resources. Mark Johnson, Director of Advocacy at the Shepard Center in Atlanta, calls these separate groups “silos.” They are like separate tribes who don't have the time or inclination to wander unto another tribe's reservation.

This fragmentation could have something to do with the temper of the times. Unions are breaking up, large scale protests movements are non-existent, and rugged individualism again reigns as America's political and cultural ethos, at least according to politicians who want to cut taxes along with government-financed social programs. They are libertarians of one stripe or another. One of them, Rand Paul, an admirer of ultra-libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand, has even suggested out loud that the ADA should be scrapped. Twenty five years and counting, this perfectly sensible law is still fighting for its existence.

There are many other areas where the promise of the ADA has not been fulfilled -- employment figures for disabled workers have barely budged, social services still carry an undercurrent of shame, even for those who desperately need them, and characters and actors with disability are virtually MIA in current TV and film.

Let's not end on such a sore note. A huge amount of the world is more accessible and inviting since the ADA, and beyond that, something much deeper is going on. In many minds, the sense of strangeness and suspicion – the otherness of the disabled -- has gone away. One wheelchair user/activist said that she noticed that parents in public places now let their kids come up to her and ask questions, instead of jerking them away like she was a leper. I can honestly say in my own life that I feel that most non-disabled people I encounter no longer see my disability as pitiful or a death warrant. They accept my difference, which isn't that great to begin with.

This is a sea change in public attitude that can be directly attributed to the ADA. If it continues, which seems inevitable, major progress is not too far behind.


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How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life