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Monday, June 28, 2010

ADA Fantasy Land

Tom Harkin has been a long time advocate of disability rights. We need people like Harkin. He is man of power, well connected, and at a fundamental level gets disability rights. All this is good. But when I read the below I wondered if he has lost touch with reality. Below is what Harkin wrote for Ability Magazine in the June July issue. I quote the article in its entirety so reader will be able to understand my annoyance.

As we all know, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As chief sponsor of the ADA in the Senate, I will always remember the day it was signed into law—July 26, 1990—as one of the proudest in my legislative career.
We have come a long way in the last 20 years. Before the ADA, life was very different for people with disabilities, and discrimination was both commonplace and accepted.
I still recall the hearings we conducted in both the Senate and the House, and the testimony of so many individuals with disabilities from all across America about the discrimination that they faced on a daily basis.
We heard stories of individuals who had to crawl on their hands and knees to go up a flight of stairs or to gain access to their local swimming pools. Stories of individuals who couldn’t ride on a bus because there wasn’t a lift. Stories of individuals who couldn’t go to concerts or ballgames because there was no accessible seating. Stories of individuals who could not even cross the street in their wheelchairs because there were no curb cuts. Stories of individuals who could not buy a pair of shoes or go to the movies. In short, stories of millions of Americans who were denied access to their own communities—and to the American dream.
Passage of the ADA was a bipartisan effort. As chief sponsor in the Senate, I worked very closely with people on both sides of the aisle, both in Congress and in the Administration. Senators Ted Kennedy and Bob Dole were indispensible allies. We received invaluable support from President George Herbert Walker Bush and key members of his administration, including White House counsel Boyden Gray and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. And there were so many others—Justin Dart, advocates, other members of Congress and the Administration—whose commitment and support were instrumental in helping pass the ADA. The final vote on the ADA (91 to 6 in the Senate) sent a resounding message that this nation would no longer tolerate isolation, segregation and second-class citizenship for people with disabilities.
Over the last two decades, we have made truly amazing progress. Streets, buildings, sports arenas and transportation systems are more accessible for people with physical impairments. Information is offered in alternative formats, so that it is usable by individuals with visual or hearing difficulties. New communications and information technologies that are accessible to people with disabilities continue to be developed.
Because of the employment provisions in the ADA, many individuals with disabilities are now able to get reasonable accommodations on the job, such as assistive technology, or accessible work environments, or more flexible schedules. These reasonable accommodations are important tools in ensuring that people with disabilities have an equal opportunity in the workplace.
These changes are all around us. In fact, today they are so integrated into our daily lives that it is sometimes hard to remember how the world used to be.
Just as important, we have seen an enormous change in attitudes toward people with disabilities. Our expectation is that we will do what it takes to give individuals with disabilities not just physical access, but equal opportunity in our schools, in our workplaces, and in all areas of our economy and society.
Today we recognize that, like all people, people with disabilities have unique abilities, talents and aptitudes. And America is better, fairer and richer when we make full use of those gifts.
Every individual with a disability deserves a chance to realize the four great goals of the ADA: equal opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency.
However, progress under the ADA only happens when people—people like you—understand what the law requires, and then choose to make it a priority to ensure that individuals with disabilities are included in all aspects of community life.
It’s one thing for people with disabilities to have rights on paper and a very different thing to know that they enjoy those rights in everyday practice, especially in their communities and in the workplace. We are in an ongoing fight, a never-ending struggle, to vindicate those rights.
To those of you who are on the front lines in this struggle: I thank you for the work you do every day to ensure that ADA is alive and vibrant in your communities, opening doors of opportunity and breaking down barriers of discrimination.
We have continued to advance the rights of individuals with disabilities and the four goals of the ADA with the recent passage of the ADA Amendments Act, which restored our original Congressional intent, in respect to who is covered by the ADA. We also passed the Community First Choice Option, which will increase the availability of home and community-based services for people with disabilities.
And yet, our work is not yet done. An ongoing challenge is to increase employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Recent surveys show that only 37 percent of individuals with disabilities are employed. These are individuals who want to work, but who are unemployed due to a variety of factors. Many individuals lack adequate support services, some employers are not providing reasonable accommodations, and others are still reluctant to hire people with disabilities.
As a consequence, an estimated 21 million people with disabilities are not employed. We must break down the barriers that prevent or discourage individuals with disabilities from working and having the opportunity for economic self-sufficiency, as we promised in the ADA. That is why I will be hosting a two-day Congressional summit in the fall that will focus on the employment of individuals with disabilities in America.
On July 26, 1990, when he signed ADA into law, President George Herbert Walker Bush spoke with great eloquence. I will never forget his final words before taking up his pen. He said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”
Today, that wall is indeed falling. The ADA has opened doors, created opportunities and transformed lives. Together, we can help ensure a future of even greater inclusion, equality and opportunity for all Americans.

by Senator Tom Harkin

I don't like the Ability Magazine--it is the happy paper of disability hence Harkin's rosy view of the ADA is to be expected. Harkin is correct in much of what he writes about. Ramps, elevators, and physical access to building has improved greatly. I too laud wheelchair access and directly benefit from this form of architectural equality. Like other Americans, I can go to a baseball game and, assuming the stadium is new, have a wide choices of places to sit. I also agree closed captioning and other forms of adaptive communication has improved greatly. These physical changes in the environment are wonderful and were indeed spearheaded by the ADA. Without the ADA much of our country would not be accessible. But this access has come at a cost and we have a very long way to go before people with a disability are remotely equal. The 20th anniversary is not the time for disability rights advocates to slap themselves on the back and say "job well done" as Harkin has done. The ADA has utterly failed to change the public perception of disability nor ameliorate the social bigotry that remains the norm. People unfamiliar with disability see little blue wheelchair symbols plastered on the wall and think the problem was solved long ago. I assure you the problem is not resolved. Access, physical and social, is illusive at best. Disability rights and civil rights are not thought of as remotely similar and this represents a major failure of the ADA. I remain stunned by my social experiences that demonstrate the woeful ignorance of others with regard to disability rigths. Two examples should suffice:

Example 1: My son graduated from high-school last week. The facility was accessible in every way possible. When I arrived there was no sign about handicapped parking which on this rare occasion I was going to use. I was directed by a person directing traffic who proceeded to yell "handicapper" to the next man directing traffic. This yell was repeated again and again. Yes, I am not human I am Mr. Handicapper! After dropping off my son I looked for a spot to sit. A chair had to be removed and the usher that removed the chair treated me as though I had no brain. He spoke to me like a child. By the time the ceremony started I was ready to punch someone in the nose. Equal I was not.

Example 2: I was at a baseball game with a friend's 12 year old child. Yes, the new stadium is accessible and has a host of seats for me to choose from. Why I can even got to the bathroom. I was hyper alert with this kid as I was the responsible adult looking after her. All went well until we tried to leave via the elevator. One elevator was blocked off for VIP ticket holders. The line for the other elevator was very long and I would estimate 20 people cut in front of us. I politely complained to a nearby usher and he told me "oh, that happens all the time. You people are good at waiting so just be patient. There is nothing I can do to help you". Again, equal I am not.

Equality in the examples above is not remotely a consideration much less a concept others have accepted. Yes, I can get into buildings, attend a baseball game and graduation, but that does not mean in any way I am equal. Imagine what would have happened at my son's graduation or at the elevator if I replaced the word handicap with black. Imagine the outrage if I were segregated to a "black elevator" or the presence of a "black man" was yelled from one car attendant to another. It would have been socially unacceptable at least and for most with any sense of equality a major civil rights violation. But I am not black. I am just your average middle aged crippled dude whose presence is tolerated but humanity and equality denied. When I wonder is this going to change? Harkin's words are not going to help the present lack of social equality. Indeed, I think the little coverage the 20th anniversary of the ADA will garner in the mainstream media is going to be counter productive. We people in the disability rights movement have a long way to go until we are truly equal. And that my friend is what we should be focusing on.


Becs said...

Nic used to be the director of the Savannah, GA CIL. He's a friend of mine and has been trying to raise awareness about the abuse of accessible parking spaces.

And he would never describe himself as "wheelchair bound".


Unknown said...

I couldn't help but think while reading this... "instead of crawling to a pool, we have people crawling up steps to a COURTHOUSE; now that buses have lifts people can't even use them because they don't work or the driver doesn't know how to operate the lift". Access is still dependent on attitudes and I'm left wondering if attitudes are getting worse regarding PWD every time I venture into public.

Maybe we should just all mobilise into the streets of DC; I can see the news now... "Handicappers say they are coming to DC; White House questions what to do about rogue wheelchair users and other handicappers!"

william Peace said...

Court, Mobilization and direct confrontation is what we "handicappers" must prefect. We must undertake modern cutting edge protests. Our current efforts are stale--see what ADAPT is trying to do in CA or Chicago. Here I am thinking along the lines of flash mobs that organized and filmed and posted on You Tube to hopefully be seen by millions. We need to combine protest in ts traditional forms with modern day technology that appeals to the masses.

Kateryna of the Cenotaph said...

While reading the article I was snorting. He thinks everywhere is the magical land of curbcuts? I don't have them. I get to roll in the streets. I cross the busiest street in town without a cross walk because the cross walk is not accessible to me. I am terrified for my life each and every time.

The local pool has stairs, no ramp. I am always told they are working on it which means when I can I will sue them, via the class action method. My city needs to be sued.

You only have even half assed access in the tourist areas here. Albuquerque New mexico's paratransit is also a broken system, and it is so expensive that on my limited income (because I can';t get out to try working or schooling) I cannot afford it.

If we were valued as people, I don't know what I would do. Most likely, I would write more things filled with joy or have enough money for a bag that doesn't shred on the sides of my wheelchair.

Oh, any recommendations for a good bag that works on the side of your chair? all offical wheelchair bags are either not usable because they go on the back of my chair, and I will NOT leave my things where I have to trust a stranger to get them or they fall apart. Sorry slightly off topic but while I am commenting...

william Peace said...

Kata, On a bag for your wheelchair: don't waste your time with any company associated with the wheelchair business. I suggest you go to one of two places: a high end motor cycle shop or yacht builder. Both types of companies do custom work and love to work that is out of the norm. I get my wheelchair upholstery made this way. It is half the cost and lasts twice as long.
As to your more general comments on the lack of access, I am growing tired of self congratulatory comments about how great the ADA is. Access is illusive at best and support services woefully inadequate. Social bigotry is rampant and unacceptable. In many ways the ADA has been an utter failure. Sure it puts the law on our side but it is not valued or followed by American society as a whole.

Kateryna of the Cenotaph said...

Thank you for the information on the bag, I know there is a bike shop.

I have tried to get the ADA enforced without legal action, and even once had the police called on me for being in a wheelchair, and they tried to arrest me. They threatened to have my service animal put to death. That was the moment I knew the ADA is all bark and no bite.

I have stopped going to places where they will not follow the ADA. I am stunned however when the bigger stores do actually follow the ADA and reprimand their employees when they violate it. (I have an amazing Costco and an good Walmart.)

Don't give up. I don't expect you would which is part of why I come here to drink in your work, and I truly appreciate everything you share. It matters not if I agree with you, but each time I feel as if I can fight through the lack of actual access one more time.

william Peace said...

Kata, The only government entity that seems to try and enforce the ADA is the Department of Justice. I filed one complaint, nothing came of it, after a horrible experience on an airline.
Let your money talk with the ADA. When a business is accessible I tell them job well done. I make a point of saying it is the reason I shop at a store. Conversely, I let a business know when they present needless barriers and take my business elsewhere. Imagine if all people with a disability did this? We would be a power consumer group.
Thanks for your kind words. They mean a great deal to me.
Hope you can get a bag made well.