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.“

Traveling with a Disability

Guest Blogger, Chris Wistrom, Independent Living Specialist

I just returned from an Alaskan vacation; I had a wonderful time, but this wasn’t my first trip there.  Alaska is the 49th state of the USA, purchased from Russia in 1867.   Ten years ago my sister and I boarded ship and were swept away with the scenery and history of this vast frontier.  We cruised what is called “the Inner Passage” – visiting the port cities of Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Victoria in British Columbia.  During that trip, I do not recall seeing even one traveler with a visible disability.  I found things have changed on this trip!

This time we took the same route through the Inner Passage.   I noted that there were many people aboard ship using wheelchairs.  I am gratified to see that the trip is not limited to those without mobility disabilities.  I also found they were equipped for assisting people with disabilities into the pool or whirlpool.  That’s great!  Basking in the whirlpool in gloriously warm water while on deck watching for whales is one of my favorite memories.  The icy wind blows through your hair, but the hot water is an absolute delight!  Everyone should have that opportunity!  

I noted that the ship made quite an effort to ensure the safety and comfort of the passengers with disabilities.  Ramps had been installed in the halls and the pathways had been restructured so passengers could get to their staterooms without having to navigate sharp bends in the hall or stairs.  Many of the passages had been made wider so people could easily travel both directions without running into one another.  Perhaps the best thing of all is that the dining areas now accommodate people with disabilities.  If you’ve ever eaten on shipboard, you’ll understand why they say the average person gains 4 pounds per day on a cruise!

Cruising to Alaska was a wonderful adventure, and having the ship make minor accommodations so that people with disabilities can enjoy the trip too made it more of a delightful experience.  After all, those accommodations made it easier for me to get around too…and, after all, I was 10 years older this time too!

Borculo woman experiences the healing power of nature

There’s a pinkish tomato in a cluster of green tomatoes that’s partly visible in a staked tangle of green vines.

The harvester must judge whether the tomato is red enough to be ripe, even as breezes move the leaves and fluctuations in daylight due to cloud-cover change how the fruited vine appears.

The decision whether to pick the tomato is further complicated by distractions of chirping of birds and passing traffic.

The picker must possess the hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills to twist the desired fruit from the vine and place it gently, to avoid bruising, in a basket.

This is why picking a tomato can be difficult for someone who has suffered brain trauma.

Borculo resident Vickie Wiersma Priebe, 60, says gardening aided her in healing from a head injury five years ago.

Priebe was working in a gift shop in Saugatuck when a heavy wooden sign fell, striking the upper right side of her face.

There was no blood. Priebe applied an ice pack between customers hoping to minimize swelling in her eye area.

But her head was throbbing and she felt too dizzy to stand without leaning on something sturdy. She couldn’t count change correctly or remember how to run a credit card.

Priebe was working alone and couldn’t reach the shop’s owner by phone to obtain permission to close the store. So, she summoned her own daughter to help her finish a 10-hour shift.

Then Priebe’s daughter drove her to Prime Care, where an orbital contusion on her right eye socket and concussion were diagnosed.

As brain injuries go, doctors were hopeful that Priebe’s was minor.  After a year she was still experiencing migraine headaches with vision anomalies, dizziness, and slow cognitive functioning.

Getting herself out of bed, bathed, dressed and fed in the mornings became a four-hour ordeal, because she’d forget what she was doing and repeat steps.

She couldn’t follow a recipe.  Shopping overwhelmed her, especially in large stores with fluorescent lights. Reading was difficult – unless the text was upside down!

Doctors then diagnosed post-concussive syndrome, symptoms from structural damage to the brain, or disruption of neurotransmitters, as a result of the blow that caused the concussion.

Vision problems increased. Layered patterns of shimmering shark teeth persisted across her visual field, although muscle tissue around the right eye appeared healthy.

Priebe continues to pursue becoming more functional, but wishes progress was swifter.

“Through stubborn determination, I’ve come back this far,” Priebe said. “Of all the things I’ve done, working on the farm helped the most.”

She’s speaking of CJ Veggies, a small local organic vegetable farm operated by Chuck and Judy Johnson.

Priebe had been a regular customer of CJ Veggies at the Holland Farmers Market. Chuck Johnson asked if she’d like to help on the farm when they saw each other at Harvest Health Foods in Hudsonville in March 2012.

“At that time I wasn’t talking much,” Priebe remembers. “It was frustrating not being able to pull the right words from the file cabinet of my brain. I’d shut down around people.”

She wanted to accept Johnson’s offer because she remembered reading a fascinating book titled “Earthing” by Clint Ober. Premise of the book is that direct “grounded” contact with the earth’s surface provides humans with many health benefits.

Priebe explained that she was coming back from a head injury that was compounded by an eye problem. She sighed with relief when Johnson chuckled, “Shoot. Everybody’s coming back from something.”

Looking back, Priebe imagines she was a difficult farmhand. The farm manager had to repeat instructions, which her mind slowly processed into different words that made sense to her.

She wore wrap-around sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat to block bright light from her right eye. The eye’s response to light triggers her migraines.

She often wears earplugs to muffle sounds and help her concentrate on the task at hand. Weeding around lettuce and spinach plants requires keen powers of differentiation.

Standing and stooping while working in fields gave her experience orienting her body in open surroundings. Slowly she overcame the tendency to lurk and lean on perimeters.

Priebe came to appreciate repetitive tasks, believing they gave her space for emotional healing. Her injury had changed her, and her relationships.

She believes her status with her daughter and son was diminished because now they were often cast in the mothering role, driving her to appointments and checking on her welfare.

Yet, Priebe said she found a sense of accomplishment in washing produce and packing boxes to fill orders from local restaurants and Community Supported Agriculture customers.

She attended Farm-to-Table dinners at other organic farms and felt accepted and encouraged by the farmworkers. She was knitting a new network of social support – another key to living with a disability.

“The farm helped me relearn how to function in the world,” said Priebe, who previously worked as a paralegal secretary and dental assistant. “I also learned to tolerate my limitations and be grateful for gains I’m making now.”

Is nature therapy for you?