To those of us who have NEW MOBILITY in common, the ADA needs no explanation. It is part of our cultural landscape, and we see its successes — and its failings — everywhere. But we forget that to most Americans, the letters ADA have nothing to do with disability rights, and even less to do with civil rights. To dentists it is the American Dental Association. Those who depend on insulin to stay healthy know it as the American Diabetes Association, and to software engineers, the letters stand for a programming language. If you happen to live in Pontotoc County, Okla., A-D-A spells the name of the county seat, population 17,000.
From the beginning, even though the 1990 law passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, it faced tough wheeling. The machinery of implementation didn’t exist. The Act was a suggestion, a proposition, a take-it-or-leave-it piece of legislation with no money to support it and no practical apparatus to enforce it. To some, ADA came to mean Affordable Discrimination Alternative. Businesses could escape having to make “reasonable accommodations” by pretending they couldn’t afford it.
In the minds of the drafters of the law, economic hardship was meant to apply to small businesses that could potentially be harmed by expensive modifications. It most certainly was not meant to apply to Regal Entertainment Group, the largest movie theater chain in the nation (perhaps in the world), which embarked upon an aggressive campaign of building new, inaccessible stadium theaters in the late 1990s.
When Kathy Stewmon and I initiated a lawsuit against this corporate giant through our local disability advocacy nonprofit in Portland, Ore., Regal ignored our attorney’s letters. They ignored, they stalled, and they continued stalling and ignoring while they built more and more theaters with segregated front-row-only wheelchair seating, the worst seats in the house. And they did it intentionally, with the blessings of their corporate lawyers, in blatant defiance of the law.
That was the most egregious act of discrimination I have ever experienced. It was several years and thousands of stadium seating theaters later before that lawsuit made it to the Supreme Court, and only then did Regal learn that the ADA was about enforceable civil rights.
By contrast, the best ADA experience I ever had came in 2002, almost exactly one year post-9/11. I had come to Pound Ridge, N.Y., to interview Christopher Reeve at his residence. I was there for several hours, then had to leave to get to a Yankees game on time. It wasn’t just any Yankees game. It was my first trip to New York City, my first game at Yankee Stadium, a sellout — Roger Clemens was pitching against the Red Sox. I rolled into the packed stadium and found my seat not far from third base just 10 rows up from the field.
It was one of the best seats in the house, cost $40, and there was only one reason I had been able to purchase that ticket: I was a wheelchair user, and the ADA had guaranteed my right to be there.