Through The Front Door: Romancing the ADA

AUTHOR: THEN & NOW In the years since he wrote this ADA piece, longtime NM contributor and C5 quad Michael Collins served as executive director of California State Independent Living Council and the National Council on Disability. He is currently a contributing editor and the Everyday Advocacy columnist for NEW MOBILITY.

AUTHOR: THEN & NOW
In the years since he wrote this ADA piece, longtime NM contributor and C5 quad Michael Collins served as executive director of California State Independent Living Council and the National Council on Disability. He is currently a contributing editor and the Everyday Advocacy columnist for NEW MOBILITY.

Originally published in Spinal Network Extra, Winter 1992

Romance in public places is a great part of life, but it takes more than cash to enjoy such pleasure today. Far too often it’s also necessary to check your wheelchair at the door if you want to join your friends or lovers for an evening of socializing or a romantic interlude.

Bob Pike, of Portland, Ore., knows this too well. He’s been dating and using a wheelchair for many years. “I remember one first date — a John Denver concert — when my date sat 6 feet below me and 5 feet to the side,” he says. “I don’t recall if we ever went out again.”

On another occasion, Pike had a cozy weekend planned to entertain a new love. “I had called ahead to be sure the place was fully accessible,” he says. “But when we got to our room we found the bathroom door missing. The complete loss of privacy really stifled her desire — and our weekend.”

Pike can also speak to the frustrations of using a wheelchair at public events: “I can’t decide which is more frustrating, concerts at the Civic Auditorium, where people continue standing in front of me after the concert starts, or Blazer games, where they only stand during the exciting plays.”

Will the ADA put some sizzle back in Pike’s social life? Will his date’s bowl of bisque be served by attentive staff in convivial surroundings, or will it be delivered in a paper carton at the front steps? How realistic is it to expect that every American will soon be able to enter any restaurant, tavern, stadium or hotel?

On Jan. 26, 1992, all places of accommodation must be accessible to people with disabilities — if the changes are “readily achievable.” Interpreting that phrase may be a lawyer’s dream and a plaintiff’s nightmare. …

The presumed economic impacts of the ADA have businesses crying foul, romance be damned. During Senate hearings, the business community decried the costs of implementing the ADA, yet studies have shown that at least half of the modifications required would cost nothing and only 20 percent would cost more than $500.

Whatever the real costs turn out to be, high-priced consultants and ADA seminars are sprouting up around the country. They are not all alike. While some advise on making the necessary changes, others recommend doing nothing until after complaints pile up. They claim that may be the cheapest way to deal with the ADA.

They may be right. The options for challenging businesses flaunting the rules are in flux. The ADA does not allow monetary damages, so only “reasonable” attorney’s fees can be reimbursed after a successful suit. …

But better accessibility doesn’t always require lawsuits. Jack and Norma Nickols were recently traveling on business, staying in a new hotel. They mentioned to the desk clerk that there was no curb cut at the front door. Immediately, the hotel manager introduced himself and asked what was needed, how it should be constructed, where it should be located, and — Voila! — by the next morning a concrete ramp was in place.

So where did the Nickols find this prompt and courteous response to their access problems? Well, the rest of the city isn’t exactly accessible, and no one there has ever heard of the ADA, but you can find that ramp at the Grand Hyatt Taipei Hotel in Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China.

Update

A handful of years after this piece appeared in SNE, attorney-para Bob Pike brought a lawsuit under the ADA against one of the richest men in the world, Paul Allen, owner of the Portland Trailblazers and the Seattle Seahawks. Allen’s Rose Quarter, built for the Blazers in 1994, was inaccessible in multiple ways. Allen and his advisors had ignored the disability community when it pointed out that his building plans, if followed, would violate the new law. Pike sued, won a judgment, and Allen had to spend millions in retrofitting costs.

Allen is not the only business owner to thumb his nose at the ADA and ultimately be brought to task. The battle still goes on today, and the cumulative weight of resistance from business owners, whether justified or not, has brought on a new legal phenomenon — so-called drive-by lawsuits.

As for the Nickols finding international business owners eager to make their properties accessible, the rest of the world, at least parts of it, is catching up to the United States, which at press time has yet to ratify the international Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (139 nations had ratified the CRPD at press time).

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