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.

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.“

How Accessible Is Your Travel Destination, Really? Now There’s An App For That!

Rain or shine, the West Michigan lakeshore attracts tourists from around the world.

Holland State Park, Grand Haven State Park, and the Grand Haven Lighthouse and Pier rank No. 1 to 3, respectively, according to TripAdvisor.

Not all top attractions – or restaurants, or hotels – would get top ratings from travelers with mobility challenges, however.

Having up-to-date accessibility information on travel destination can make the difference in how fully you’re able to enjoy it when you get there.

That’s why a group of current and former computer science students developed a software application they call “Access Earth.”

The Access Earth app is an easy way for smartphone users with disabilities to preview and review access to public places to benefit others who use wheelchairs, walkers, tricycles, crutches and other assistive devices.

Access Earth was the Global Citizenship Award winner and was the $5,000 third-prize winner overall in the 2014 finals of the Imagine Cup, a worldwide technology design competition for students sponsored by Microsoft. The finals were held in August at Seattle.

“We didn’t just develop this for the competition,” said Matthew McCann, 24, team captain. “As we build our database, we hope Access Earth will become a valuable and reliable source of information for people around the world.”

McCann, a masters-level student at Maynooth University in Kildare, Ireland, envisioned the Access Earth app after a trip to the 2012 Olympic Games in London with KC Grant, the only American on the design team.

McCann has cerebral palsy and uses a rolling walker to steady himself. The hotel he booked was, according to its website, “accessible.” Yet the room doorways were too narrow to accommodate his Rollator. Also, there was no ramp option to avoid a three-step rise from the entrance to the reception desk.

Most accessibility rating systems just don’t provide enough information for someone with mobility challenges to know if a place will be suitable for them, McCann said.

He and fellow students at Maynooth developed Access Earth outside of their coursework to archive reviews. Users can also leave a meaningful rating based on a series of specific yes and no questions based on construction regulations.

Similar apps like Wheelmap and DisabledGo use rating continuums that aren’t specific enough for people who require certain accessibility features, McCann said.

The Access Earth app works on smartphones that use the Windows platform. Look for it in the Windows store. The students are developing mobile apps this fall that will work on iPhone and Android devices. Check iTunes and Marketplace for those apps.

The app can also be downloaded from the developers’ website,

But you don’t need to have the app to start leaving accessibility ratings and reviews for West Michigan attractions like Windmill Island, The Musical Fountain, and Tunnel Park.

Site reviews can be entered at by viewing the site through any Internet browser.

Fact is, Access Earth will become more useful as its database of ratings and reviews grows.

“Participation from a lot of people all over the world is what’s going to help Access Earth make a difference,” said Grant, 23, a Massachusetts resident who’s preparing to start a clinical biological research program winter semester at a Rhode Island college.

Other members of the Access Earth design team are: Donal McClean, 25, now working on a master’s degree at Athlone Institute of Technology in Co. Westmeath, Ireland; and Jack Gallagher, 22, a recent Maynooth graduate now working for IBM in Dublin, Ireland.

So, who’s going to be the first to review Mt. Pisgah and the Tri-Cities Historical Museum?

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? 

Going Mobile

Only a few years ago, “going mobile” sounded revolutionary.

Not any more.

According to the PewResearch Internet Project, as of January 2014:

  • 90 percent of American adults have a cell phone
  • 58 percent of American adults have a smartphone (accesses the Internet)
  • 32 percent of American adults own an e-reader
  • 42 percent of American adults own a tablet computer

Some people with chronic or age-related disabilities are hesitant to try mobile devices, but J.J. Meddaugh, president of A.T. Guys in Kalamazoo, gives a good pep talk.

Meddaugh -- whose business has been selling assistive technology, training and support throughout Michigan for five years – spoke at the recent Visions conference in Ann Arbor.

For people who want accessibility features in a cell phone, but don’t want the pricey data contract that accompanies a smartphone, Meddaugh recommends the Samsung Haven, which is compatible with Verizon Wireless. It’s an “old-fashioned” flip phone with a traditional numeric keypad. All the menus and functions speak to help a user who is visually impaired make calls and send text messages. Cost is about $100.

“I recommend iPhones and iPads to most people, but I’m not a commercial for Apple,” Meddaugh said. “In fact, my phone is an Android. I can do that because I’m a geek.”

Apple builds accessibility features into all its products, Meddaugh explained. Voiceover, Apple’s screen reader, comes installed on every Apple device. A preloaded tutorial teaches the hover, tap and swipe gestures a user needs to navigate. Users can speak a command to Siri, Apple’s voice-activated personal assistant, to easily turn Voiceover on and off.

Learning Apple applications is fairly intuitive, and once you’ve learned to use one, you know how to use them all.

The interface is not so smooth on Android devices, but Meddaugh said it takes a savvy assistive technology user to work around limited accessibility features.

The most widely used screen-reading software for computers with the Windows Operating System is JAWS (Job Access With Speech), but it costs about $900.

Another good option is Window-Eyes, a full-featured screen reader that costs about $700 if bought separately but now can be downloaded free at by those who buy Microsoft Office 2010 or 2013.

There are also free screen readers. The open source reader NVDA gets high marks. Windows 7 and Windows 8 come with a basic screen reader called Narrator.

Smartphones are popular because they’re versatile and portable. Meddaugh said most people have no idea how much they’ll use it until they have one.

He recommends that anyone shopping for a smartphone delay until the iPhone 6 debuts. This version will have a bigger screen – an advantage for low-vision users who need to magnify text and users with dexterity problems.

Meddaugh encourages people to think carefully before buying any device that is built to perform a single function. Do you need a global positioning system, when you can get that feature on your phone? Most people will get more utility from downloading the Nook or Kindle apps for an iPad than buying a Nook or Kindle themselves, he said.

Another reason for assistive technology users to choose iPhones, Meddaugh said, is the BARD app. BARD stands of Braille and Audio Reading Download. Eligible readers can download books, magazines and music for free with the app from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. See the BARD application instructions for criteria.

Work on a BARD app for Android is being developed but no debut is imminent.

AT Guys website is The phone number is 269-216-4798.

What is your choice of assistive technology when it comes to cell phones?