Americans with Disabilities Act

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.

Access 25 Years Later ...

Dan Wedge said he grew up feeling sad for people like his grandmother who used a wheelchair after losing a leg to diabetes.

“There were so many things that she would have enjoyed that she didn’t get to do,” Wedge said. “Even going out to eat with her required a lot of planning because there were so few restaurants that a wheelchair user could get into.”

Wedge - now Allegan County’s executive director of services - says his experience as a person using a wheelchair has been much different, thanks largely to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Wedge lost use of his legs in 1987 when his Cadillac rolled on him as he tried to push it up a snowy embankment after sliding off an icy Mecosta County road.

After rehabilitation, he was able to return to his sales position with office equipment business owned by his family, but being able to access public places wasn’t something a person using a wheelchair could count on.

That began to change when Congress enacted the ADA three years later, in 1990.

“The ADA reinforces that people with disabilities have a right to equal access,” Wedge said. “Its focus really addresses the needs of everybody.”

Parents of young children appreciate curbed sidewalks and the option of a wider public restroom stall, Wedge said. Subtitles on TV shows and movies benefit the hearing as well as the hearing impaired.

The ADA-inspired hard-surface walkway over the beach to Lake Michigan is the most popular way to access the water among all visitors to Holland State Park, he said.

Near and dear to Wedge’s heart is the new “winding ramp” at West Side Park in Allegan County which allows visitors including people who use wheelchairs to gradually navigate the 80-foot drop from the bluff to the Lake Michigan shore. Two scenic rest decks are popular with people with and without disabilities alike.

And the list goes on.

Cheers for the Americans with Disabilities Act!

The Americans with Disabilities Act transformed a nation.

If ever a yearlong victory lap was in order, this is it.

The Americans With Disabilities Act became the law of the land on July 26, 1990. As the country celebrates the 25th anniversary of this monumental legislation, it’s fitting that we reflect on ways the ADA has enabled people with disabilities to participate more fully in the workforce and community life.

“I didn’t realize the ADA’s positive impact on my life until I entered college, 10 years after the ADA was signed,” said Lucia Rios, an accessibility specialist with the Disability Network/Lakeshore.

Lucia was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair or crutches to get around. Just 10 years old when the ADA became law, Lucia is among an estimated 55 million Americans with disabilities who enjoy greater opportunities for independence and engagement because of this quantum legislation.

“Because of the ADA,” Lucia said, “there was no question about attending a public and accessible university. When I joined the workforce four years later, I was hired by a company that made accommodations without hesitation.”

Having professional, full-time employment has made it possible for Lucia to provide for herself financially. She owns her own home and is active – really active -- in her community. In addition to her responsibilities at DNL, Lucia is a freelance writer and is currently finishing her first book.

Lucia said, that assured she could roll into higher education, employment, and an ascending career trajectory.

The ADA seeks to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in five key areas:

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

The ADA requires accommodations to assure accessibility. These accommodations have become so commonplace that people with disabilities and their allies sometimes forget the quantum difference that eliminating physical barriers has made.

Here’s a short list of changes:

  • Designated parking
  • Ramps into public buildings
  • Curb cuts
  • Handicap accessible restrooms
  • Accessible public transportation options
  • Designated seating for people in wheelchairs at sporting events and in entertainment venues
  • Fire alarms that can be seen as well as heard

The bill, introduced in Congress in 1988, garnered bipartisan support on humanitarian grounds, but there was fierce opposition on cost.

The argument was that ADA-mandated changes might push small businesses out of business.

But the movement for disability rights surged in the wake of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. The public was recognizing the inherent fallacy of “separate but equal” facilities and services. There was a groundswell of acceptance that a more inclusive America would be a stronger America.

Advocacy from many quarters heightened public awareness, but one of the most passionate was Vice Chair of the National Council on Disability Justin Dart Jr., who traversed the nation in the 1980s to conduct public hearings to collect testimonies on disability-related discrimination.

The Disability Rights Movement found champions in the nation’s capitol among President George H.W. Bush and a cadre of lawmakers whose lives were personally impacted by disabilities.

Allies included Atty. General Richard Thornburg, whose son was left physically and mentally disabled as a result of an automobile accident, and California Rep. Tony Coelho, who had epilepsy. Advocates in the Senate included Tom Harkin of Iowa, whose brother was deaf; Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, whose son had a leg amputated, and Robert Dole of Kansas, who sustained lingering combat injuries during World War II.

To be sure, the ideals embodied in the ADA have not been fully realized. It remains a work in progress, yet the progress over the last 25 years is astounding.

In coming weeks, we’ll look at how the ADA has affected life for people with disabilities who live on the lakeshore in the five key areas. Add comments to this story to share your own “then-and-now” observations.

“I’m fortunate that my work allows me to take on an active role in helping eliminate physical and attitudinal barriers about people with disabilities,” Lucia Rios said. “I’ve met many individuals with disabilities who have kept jobs by asking for accommodations, accessed programs for transit or housing, and retained services for additional supports.

“The ADA enables people with disabilities to sustain independent living,” she added, “and contribute to their communities.“

Rick Diamond

At Disability Network/Lakeshore, 1993 is regarded as a very special year.

That’s not because Bill Clinton was inaugurated as the 42nd president, because Apartheid ended with a new democratic government in South Africa, or because the first graphical user interface browser (Mosaic) made it easy to navigate the World Wide Web.

The year 1993 is a bright light in DNL’s history because that’s when the organization hired Rick Diamond, director of employment services.

“Ruth Stegeman moved in with the furniture at the organization from its inception for 19 years,” Diamond said. “And, I guess one could say that I moved in with the artwork. And, now it’s been 21 years.”

Diamond is the organization’s most venerable employee. Stegeman retired in 2011.

Originally the organization was known as Lakeshore Center for Independent Living, which began as a program of the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC).

A grant from the U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration allowed the organization to grow to provide a range of services to more than 1,200 people with a range of disabilities in Ottawa and Allegan counties annually.

Diamond is the chief liaison between Michigan Rehabilitation Services, which contracts with Disability Network/Lakeshore to provide unemployed people with disabilities job skills training and job search coaching.

“Our focus goes beyond independent living,” Diamond said. “We try to address every issue that’s a barrier to someone getting and keeping a job.”

More often than not, the barrier is reliable transportation. That’s why DNL’s leadership in getting voters to approve the Macatawa Area Express transit millage in 2006 was monumental. It provided funding which expanded local bus service for all people.

Most employers are willing to teach “hard” skills – the tasks necessary to perform the work. Few, Diamond said, are willing to teach “soft” skills like teamwork, etiquette, punctuality, an optimistic attitude, and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

Providing training that helps people with “more abilities than disabilities” land long-term jobs resonates with Diamond’s deepest values about the giftedness of people and helping humankind.

Diamond, who grew up in Marshall and Battle Creek, holds a Master’s of Divinity degree, but decided he wasn’t cut out for the ministry.

Some would say he has found a vocation that allows him to minister to the needs of people in very practical ways.

Attitudes about the organization, like attitudes about people with disabilities, have evolved during Diamond’s two decades on the job.

When he started, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was quite new. Area employers were anxious and fearful they would be cited for noncompliance, Diamond said. Business and industry needed skilled people to fill jobs, but had a hard time believing that appropriately accommodated workers with disabilities could be productive.

It gradually got easier to place workers with visible and invisible disabilities – until the economy “tanked” about 2007, Diamond said.

Following the “last hired, first fired” practice, a lot of people with disabilities became unemployed again.

“We’ve come out of that and employers now feel they have jobs they can’t fill with qualified people,” Diamond said. “They are looking to us again for a pool of potential employees.”

Most of the people Disability Network/Lakeshore is working with in employment services have acquired or age-related disabilities that make it difficult or impossible to continue a previous career.

Many have held long-term jobs, but have a condition or circumstances which require them to “adjust to a new normal, including different employment,” Diamond said.

Diamond calls disabilities “the ultimate equal opportunity employer.” It can strike anybody at any time.

“All people dream of having a nice place, a loving relationship and family,” Diamond said. “They want to live their lives as fully as possible. And most of those who aren’t working desperately want to find and keep a job.”

The ADA hasn’t achieved equal opportunity for people with disabilities, but Diamond says things get just a little bit better every year.

He is proud to be part of an organization that’s part of the solution.

“I’m blessed to have a job that I love and doesn’t feel like work,” Diamond said. “I’m continuing to learn and grow.”

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.