Alex Montoya worked at an independent living center before landing his job as head of Latino relations for the San Diego Padres.
Even in areas where the ADA has effected genuine change, like access to public facilities, the benefits can vary from one location to the next. Randy Alexander, 41, an ADAPT activist and community organizer in Memphis, Tenn., laments the sad state of sidewalks and curb cuts in his community. “I live in a neighborhood that is incredible,” he says. “There are tons of locally owned restaurants and businesses, grocery stores, movie theaters, doctor’s offices — everything within a mile. But unfortunately, to get to them I have to take my wheelchair out in the street all the time.” Like many cities these days with limited funds, Memphis tends to neglect its accessible infrastructure. “They look at access only after they’ve been sued about it,” Alexander says. “A lot of cities still fight the idea of full inclusion.”
On the other hand, he says, travel around the country has become much more accessible since he became a C6-7 quad in a 1992 car accident. “I travel a lot, both personally and for work, and it is so much easier now.” And while public sidewalks may pose problems for him getting places, when he gets there, he has a better time of it. “Back in ’94 or ’95, you’d go to the theater, you wouldn’t know if you could get in — there was constant wondering if you could get in places. Now you run into an obstacle, and it’s that much more maddening, because your expectations have changed.”
The “expectations game” is common for every civil rights advance this country has made: once society evolves to a certain level, demands rise for it to evolve further. As the ADA and other legislation has become a fact of life, the debate over disability has shifted from “Should people with disabilities be protected by law against discrimination?” to “How do we ensure that people with disabilities are fully integrated?”
Stolz, a former coordinator of a mentoring program for high school students with disabilities, says, “I really believe that policies help shape the way people think.” While it may seem as if social change doesn’t happen quickly enough — “Between 1990 and now, there’s been a real change in people’s attitudes.” Young people with disabilities, coming of age fully in a post-ADA world, have a much greater sense of their own worth and expect equality and inclusion. “If they go somewhere and it’s not accessible, they’re much more likely to say, ‘Hey, this is BS,’ than we would have as kids. I think that changes who they become.”
Montoya agrees. “Today’s kids are probably benefiting more from the ADA than any of us, and the kids after them certainly will even more.”
ADA as Community Builder
For that to happen, however — for equality and inclusion of people with disabilities to progress through future generations — the disability community needs to learn how to become a true community, one that nurtures the growth of its members and supports them in their struggles.
The story of any social movement, at the end, comes down to individuals fighting for their rights — be they African-American, women, gay/lesbian or disabled. To Stolz, however, “other communities are more closely connected than people with disabilities — it’s easier for them to have solidarity.” Outside of the rare group action, such as those by ADAPT, the struggle for disability rights remains very individual, personal and lonely. “We are still very disconnected,” Stolz says.
Alexander, the activist and community organizer, believes the ADA should be used as a tool for building the sort of community that can expand disability rights even further. “The disability rights movement is really in its infancy compared with other civil rights movements,” he says. “Now that we can get out in the community, we should be working to find each other. We should be using the ADA to reach out and find more of our disabled brothers and sisters, so that we can work towards changing the culture.” Or, as Overstreet puts it, “With increased accessibility comes increased visibility, and in turn you get more social progress.”
For Montoya, simply seeing more people with disabilities out and about makes him feel more connected to the larger community. “I remember going to professional events in the mid- to late ’90s and being the only person with a disability in the room. There’s always going to be circumstances where that still happens, but it happens less and less.
“It’s probably taken longer than most advocates would like, but we’re becoming more of a part of everyday life,” Montoya says. “Eventually some of us are going to be in positions of power — that’s how real change is going to be effected.”
Although people with disabilities remember the signing of the ADA as a huge watershed event, the truth was that coverage of it in nondisabled media was relatively light — certainly light in comparison to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to which disability advocates often compared it. The comparison is an apt one, however. Like the Civil Rights Act, the ADA has taken on a symbolic value far broader than the specific provisions of the law itself — it symbolizes not just the nitty-gritty of physical access to facilities or accommodations in the workplace, but the entire vision of inclusion for people with disabilities in the life of our society. A vision not yet attained, but one to be constantly striven for.
By Tim Gilmer
It isn’t just a guide to accessibility, a law, a set of legal requirements or an historic civil-rights document, as important as these may be. More than anything, the Americans with Disabilities Act has changed the landscape of the American psyche. People now know they can be held accountable for discrimination against people with disabilities. Most importantly, awareness of the law has given those of us who live with serious disabling conditions a psychological boost, an expectation that our lives really do count.
And that expectation is everything.
In many cultures people with disabilities are not expected to contribute anything. They are expected to stay on the sidelines, remain docile and compliant while the movers and shakers of the world have their way. Truthfully, even in the United States, plenty of people — and businesses — still hold to this patronizing attitude.
But now that the ADA has been around for 20 years, it is gradually transforming the way people think about disability. And each one of us has a role to play in the transformation. The law is the law, and rather than wait for government programs or the Department of Justice to force compliance, it is up to us to assert ourselves and claim our rights.
The ADA gives us the right to bring compliance lawsuits as individuals, but many of us are fearful of making enemies. Still, there are dignified ways to assert our wills that can bring respect and, eventually, compliance.
Personal contact is a good place to start, but polite conversations, phone calls and e-mails bring scant results. Eventually a well-written letter stating your request for a reasonable accommodation is usually needed to force action. It is best to send a certified letter, so it will be taken seriously.
If there is no response, the next step is to engage an attorney who is familiar with the ADA. The attorney can write a follow-up letter for openers, then initiate a lawsuit if needed. Many cities have federally funded nonprofit legal services that advocate for people with disabilities. Their services are free. All you have to do is ask. This approach usually succeeds, but changing the world one business at a time is a slow process.
A group of independent living advocates in Pennsylvania tackled noncompliance in an entire neighborhood in 1999. NM’s Josie Byzek was instrumental in orchestrating Harrisburg’s “Midtown Sweep,” a carefully planned strategy that involved surveying local businesses, sending ADA warning letters (which also contained helpful information) and finally, initiating lawsuits with the help of a nonprofit disability law center. One of the keys to success was the inclusion of the press. Clear position papers were supplied to local newspapers at strategic times. Another important element: plaintiffs lived in the neighborhood. They had every right to expect compliance, especially in their own backyard.
You can read more details about the success of the Midtown Sweep at www.bcm.edu/ilru/html/publications/readings_in_IL/midtown.html.
Nationally, ADAPT has become increasingly successful in securing laws and rights for people with disabilities. As a national advocacy group, ADAPT has matured. As a result, resentment over confrontation is giving way to respect for our rights.
Without the ADA, would any of this have happened?