Virtual "Access" Online

Lawmakers designed the ADA to eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities in five key areas:

  • Public accommodations
  • Employment
  • Government facilities and services
  • Telecommunications
  • Transportation

It is in that first area – public accommodations – that the ADA was initially most evident.

Ramps, lifts, electronic door openers, and restrooms roomy enough for people who use wheelchairs are just a few of the accommodations the legislation required to boost the accessibility of public spaces.

Removing physical barriers helps people with mobility challenges be out and about.

Our world has become a more “virtual” in the last 25 years. People with disabilities need equal access to online communications to be in sync with the world.

Unfortunately, people – especially those with visual or fine motor disabilities - can bemoan the fact that there are no mandated “curb cuts” in the digital “cloud.”

The World Wide Web had not yet revolutionized communications when ADA became the law of the land.

In 1990, few people had email accounts. Online banking was unimaginable. Hand-held communication devices (i.e. mobile phones) were part of the Star Trek universe, but not daily lives of people with no commission in Starfleet Command.

That’s why recent legal challenges lodged under the public accommodations provision of the ADA hover over virtual spaces and services.

The highest profile cases involve Netflix, a popular video entertainment service. Plaintiffs claimed in two unrelated lawsuits in 2012 that Netflix’s online streaming library was in violation of the ADA because no video subtitles were provided.

Complexity of the issue was underscored by the fact that outcomes in two federal district courts were different, although the cases themselves were similar.

One court ruled that the phrase “a place of public accommodation” in the ADA applied only to places with a physical presence.

The other court interpreted the phrase more broadly to include websites, saying they operate like modern-day stores.

The latter interpretation sets an important precedent. Owners of websites that are not designed to be accessible may be sued for failing to take affirmative actions and violating the ADA.

Website accessibility becomes a greater concern every year because:

  • More communication and business is being conducted online.
  • Websites are becoming more sophisticated, graphics-laden and interactive and assistive technologies can’t instantaneously transfer all elements to an alternate format.
  • America is aging and the number of people living with chronic and age-related disabilities is growing.

The courts may have sent an ambiguous message, but Netflix itself is making strides toward greater accessibility.

Netflix has added closed captioning for much of its online streaming video library. It is also adding audio description - a narration track that describes what is happening on-screen – on its most popular original programming.

Let’s hope that the physical accommodations mandated by the ADA to increase accessibility are embraced as a template for removing virtual barriers that people with disabilities often encounter when using the Internet.

Reserving an accessible hotel room should be easier now!

We’re putting a bow on another summer -- the season synonymous with sunshine and vacation.

It’s uplifting to break with routine, see fresh sights, and relax.

But the logistics of traveling can be daunting for people with physical disabilities, even when they stop for the night. Many have to be concerned whether their hotel will be accessible enough.

Sometimes guestrooms are listed as being “accessible” when they are not fully accessible for people with particular disabilities.

Most hotel chains have a central booking agency staffed with representatives who are delighted to reserve you an “accessible room,” but might be hard-pressed to explain what makes it accessible.

Usually accessible means wider doorways, a high toilet with grab bars to help a person using a wheelchair transfer, and a shower you can roll into with a waterproof chair on wheels.

Information on accessibility features at call centers is increasing thanks to Americans with Disabilities Title III requirements, which went into effect March 15, 2012.

But travelers who require specific amenities are still advised to phone the hotel directly and quiz the front desk clerk, not just all an 800 number.

“We do sometimes carry a slide-in seat for a tub in the event that 's what we get,” Tom Bird said. “Most hotels do not have specific hardware to meet our needs, so we travel heavily equipped.”

Since accessible rooms usually have one bed without guardrails, the Birds slide Dany’s bed against one wall and line the opposite side with chairs to prevent a roll-off.

They have not done a family trip since ADA requirements that require central booking agencies to provide more information on accessibility features went into effect.

In the past, it has been difficult to find the type of accommodations they as attendants need – a room that adjoins one that is handicap accessible. 

Dany goes to bed at 8:30 p.m. In an adjoining room, Tom and Rita can watch primetime TV without disturbing Dany.

Some hotels put accessible rooms on the upper floors, but the Birds prefer to stay on the ground floor, if possible. In the event of a fire, elevators shut down, making it very difficult for anyone in a wheelchair to exit, Tom said.

The new ADA regulations require all establishments that provide transient lodging to use the same process for booking all guestrooms. If the establishment uses a centralized or online booking system, that system must display a detailed description of the accessible facilities.

The new regulations also require hotels to hold accessible guest rooms for people with disabilities until all other guest rooms of that type have been reserved. The custom of assigning rooms upon check-in and subject to availability is no longer lawful if it would mean disabled guest’s reservation of accessible room would not be honored.

Previously, guaranteed reservations by people with disabilities were sometimes given to earlier-arriving people without disabilities. Often no other accessible room remained and the person with the disability was stranded.

The accessible travel market is a $13.6 billion market and one of the fastest growing tourism niches today, according to the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).

“… With estimates of one Baby Boomer turning 65 every eight seconds, it’s a market that will continue to see significant expansion, “ said Tony Gonchar, Chief Executive Officer of ASTA, in a 2011 press release.

Pool Accessibility – Few Testing the Waters, Even if They Can

Accessibility finally came to Bouws pool in Holland this summer but failed to make a splash.

Nobody with physical limitations has asked to use the mobile machine with an electric arm lower them into the public pool.

And, sadly, the lift would not have worked well if anybody had.

The problem is a 2-inch tall and 12-inch wide concrete lip that surrounds the outdoor pool. The accessibility lift can’t get close enough to the water for the arm to lower a person into the water.

“We could get the thing close enough to the water to use it by removing a section of the lip,” said Mark Waterstone, who’s managing the pool for a second season. “That’s what we’re planning do before next season.”

Heavy equipment will be needed to cut the concrete, so concerns for public safety prevent scheduling the project during the summer, when the pool is heavily used, Waterstone said.

Of course, that means people with physical disabilities -- who have never been able to access this public pool -- can’t for yet another summer.

The federal government announced in 2010 that it intended to require existing public pools, including hotel pools and spas, to be accessible to people with disabilities.

Final deadline to add a sloped entry or lift was Jan. 31, 2013.

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 did not address existing public pools, although some public and hotel pools have removed barriers since 1992, when the ADA went into effect.

Travelers with disabilities heralded the new law, saying they’d finally have access to an amenity for which they’ve always been paying.

The hotel industry lobbied for an extension to implement the changes, but by 2013 most were compliant.

Cost of the lifts vary from $1,000 to $6,000 according to pool configuration, whether the lift is permanent or portable, and operating features.

The Amway Hotel Corporation – which owns the Amway Grand Plaza, the JW Marriott, and Courtyard by Marriott in downtown Grand Rapids – installed permanent chair-like lifts for the pools and hot tubs at its properties 2012.

Each of these lifts cost about $4,000. Nick Garlock, who manages the fitness facilities at the Amway Grand Plaza, says he understands how difficult it was small hotels to absorb the cost. Some mom-and-pop properties complained they’d have to fill in their pools and hot tubs because they couldn’t afford to add lifts, but Garlock says he doesn’t know whether any actually did.

“Our lifts at the Amway only get used a couple of times a year,” Garlock said. “Yet, I know of one traveler, who comes to Grand Rapids for an annual conference, who says he chooses to stay with us because of our lift. He uses the hot tub for therapy.”  

Waterstone says he hopes no swimmers have been inconvenienced by the unforeseen problem of situating the lift at Bouws Pool.

Since the lift is new, it’s likely the public doesn’t know about it, although a sign declaring it’s existence is posted at the pool’s welcome gate.

The portable lift is stored out of sight, and probably will be even after the pool modifications are made, Waterstone said.

How important is public pool accessibility to your recreational plans? 

Training Service Animals for People With Disabilities

Kaitlyn Weimer brought her college roommate home to Hudsonville for Christmas vacation – and played fetch with her, too.

Kaitlyn, 19, is studying to become a service dog trainer at the Bergin University for Canine Studies in Rohnert Park, Calif., the only accredited school of its kind in the world. It’s where the term “service dog” originated.

Most certification programs for dog trainers run 12 to 16 weeks, but Bergin’s offerings range from the tertiary to a master’s level degree in dogs.

Kaitlyn Weimer and Ireland

Kaitlyn Weimer and Ireland

“I want a career that feels significant and helps people,” said Kaitlyn, a 2012 graduate of Hudsonville High School. “Yet dealing directly with people all the time would be, for me, kind of tiresome. It’s easier to have patience with dogs. They’re really amazing, especially in the way they can help people and the environment.”

As a capstone project, one of the other 50 students at Bergin taught his own dog to sniff out the feces of the Emerald Ash Borer – a measure that could help save ash trees from their arch nemesis.

A lifelong dog lover, Kaitlyn hopes to return to West Michigan as a guide dog trainer. One day, she says she may seek additional training to specialize in training diabetes-alert or seizure-alert dogs.

Each semester Kaitlyn is paired with a young service-dog trainee – “a 24/7 homework assignment,” according to Kaitlyn -- that will eventually be donated to someone with a disability. The two-week trip home for the holidays was Kaitlyn’s last big outing with Ireland, a year-old Black Lab who weighs 60 pounds.

Before the trip, Kaitlyn had to train Ireland to lie quietly for hours at a time in a confined space approximating the area under an airplane seat.

Instruction taught in a dog law and ethics class proved valuable when changing her airline ticket after Kaitlyn found out Ireland would be accompanying her to Michigan as part of their training.

The ticket agent initially applied surcharges for rebooking and for upgrading Kaitlyn to an economy seat that would provide more room for Ireland underneath.

Kaitlyn pointed out that both changes were “reasonable accommodations under the Air Carrier Access Act, which governs service-dog access in the skies, and should be made without additional charge to the handler.

“Airlines know this, but it’s not something that comes up all the time for their representatives,” Kaitlyn said. “Knowing the rules really helps.”

Here are some basic rules:

·     A service animal is defined as an animal that is individually trained to do work or perform a task for the benefit of an individual with a disability, which may be physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or cognitive.

·     People have a right to ask the handler what tasks the service animal performs for them. However, it’s out of line to ask the handler to disclose his or her disability.

·     Service animals can be removed if they are not housebroken, not groomed, or not under the control of their handler. The animal does not have to be on a leash. The animal must be permitted as soon as its behaving like a service animal again. Handlers can be charged for damages the animal causes.

·     Although labs and Golden Retrievers are the most common choice for service animals, no breeds are disallowed.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers access in public places, and places where the public is invited. ADA does not guarantee access for animals whose only “work” is providing comfort. Because of the legal separation of church and state, churches are an exception.

Once Kaitlyn’s right to have Ireland at her side at Bible study was challenged on grounds that another attendee was allergic to dogs.

Common sense usually prevails when there’s no law stating who has rights. Kaityn and Ireland were not ordered to leave the church, but they started attending an affiliated Bible study nearby where allergies were not a concern.

Dogs don’t have a monopoly on the service animal industry. Miniature horses (weighing 70 to 100 pounds and 24 to 34 inches tall) are also accepted as a “reasonable accommodation.” Horses are stronger than dogs and therefore better suited for handlers who have to be pulled.

However, the Air Carrier Access Law draws the line on snakes, spiders and rodents. They’re not service animals.

If you have questions about service animals in public places, please contact Disability Network/Lakeshore at 616-396-5326.