The ADA: Tales of Reluctant Compliance

Posted by Tim Gilmer in Life After Paralysis on September 13, 2022 # Advocacy and Policy

In the first decade following the passage of the ADA, few, if any, small towns were willing to comply with the law. In 1991, a year after it was passed, a survey found that only 18% of the U.S. population had even heard of the law. That explains, at least partially, why compliance was slow to get started. But it doesn’t address the underlying causes that still exist today, more than 30 years later, when instances of noncompliance are still common.

In that first decade — 1990-2000 — many of the underlying causes became apparent not only in small towns but in every city across the nation. Reluctance to embrace what was supposed to be a civil rights law that guaranteed equal access and equal opportunity for the disabled population was the norm.

In 1994, I took my young daughter to see a Portland Trailblazers game at the team’s newly built Rose Garden Arena. We had to sit on the uppermost deck of the arena. No seats, no bathrooms, no concessions, just a concrete path around the top of the arena. I had to lean over a protective glass railing to look down on the court, where miniature players passed around a BeeBee-sized pellet. My daughter had to strain to see anything at all. The “nosebleed section” quickly became known as the “Gimp Ghetto.”

Portland lawyer Bob Pike, a wheelchair user, warned the owner of the team during the blueprint phase prior to construction that the arena would not be in compliance, but the owner chose to ignore the warning. It ended up costing him many millions to fund a complete retrofit after Pike filed suit. Many arenas were built across the nation by people with similar attitudes, and they all eventually had to be retrofitted. Why did the owners and construction companies purposely ignore the law?

accessible seating movie theater - iStockPhoto In 1997, my wife and I attended a new movie theater, one of the first “stadium seating” designs. We had one seating choice: at the bottom of the stairs, just a few feet from the giant screen. It was impossible to read captions, and we had neck-aches for days. Along with another wheelchair user, I started a lawsuit against Regal Cinemas, the nation’s largest theater chain. It eventually went to the Supreme Court. A consent decree mandated millions of dollars in changes in the Portland area and eventually forced nationwide compliance in all stadium seating theaters. Yet, during the 2-3 year litigation process, Regal continued building inaccessible stadium seating theaters across the nation. Why?

In 1998 I was sent to Cannon Beach, Oregon, to investigate and write a cover story about a couple that was fighting the mayor and city counselors just to gain basic access to the town. Nearly the entire downtown area of the popular small tourist town was inaccessible. Sidewalks had no curb cuts, sometimes stopping abruptly with no warning, and telephone poles were anchored in the sidewalk concrete with no clear passage for wheelchairs around them. The City Hall meeting area was inaccessible, along with most restaurants, and even the mayor’s liquor store/gift shop had a two-step entrance. Worst of all, the mayor refused to provide access, and the city council voted to spend a quarter of a million dollars for the city attorney to fight a lawsuit brought by the couple and five other residents rather than spend a dime to remedy any of it.

It took several years, but the lawsuit resulted in a consent decree that required the city to spend millions of dollars for compliance. In the interim, the couple was subjected to harassment and threats from other residents. Why?

The simple answer is that when people are faced with a choice to spend money and comply with the ADA or ignore the law, they too often choose money over people. Civil rights laws, to many, are seen as optional. The rights of minorities, even when protected by law, are seen as unimportant and at times irrelevant to the majority of people. It is sadly cynical to admit, but true, even today. Small towns are worse than cities because there is less diversity than in cities. A broad spectrum of people intermingling is good for building tolerance and respect. Small towns, on the other hand, are more like internet “bubbles,” where prejudices and hardened attitudes become entrenched and reinforced.

But there is hope on the horizon. City planners and residents are gradually getting better at seeing the upside of accessible living when they see it and experience it. And federal and state money is starting to trickle down to small towns. In the town where I grew up and returned to in my wheelchair just out of rehab, the entire town of 6,000 was inaccessible. That was pre-ADA, in 1965. Just this year, the same town, which has grown to 25,000, has landed three grants for improvements: $24 million for high-speed rail improvements, $3 million for an accessibility makeover downtown, and $3 million for electric buses.

Therein lies the good news: Forward-looking state and federal legislatures, mostly in Democrat-controlled states, are leading a new wave of upgrades and modernization spending that will benefit everyone, not just minorities.

Tim Gilmer graduated from UCLA in the late-1960’s, added an M.A. from the Southern Oregon University in 1977, taught writing classes in Portland for 12 years, then embarked on a writing career. After becoming an Oregon Literary Fellow, he went on to join New Mobility magazine in 2000 and edited the magazine for 18 years. He has published upwards of 100 articles, 200 columns, occasional movie reviews and essays. He and Sam, his wife and companion of 47 years, also own and operate an organic farm south of Portland, where they live with their daughter and son-in-law, four grandsons, and a resident barn owl. An excerpt from a memoir about his early post-SCI years, as part of a compendium of his writing over the past 30 years, can be read at his website — All You Need

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