ADA’s Impact on Everyday Lives

ADA’s Impact on Everyday Lives



Since its passage in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is slowly but surely changing the landscape and the lives of individuals with disabilities and their families every single day. Instead of repeatedly having to argue for their right to equal access and equal opportunity to participate in the programs, goods and services available to individuals without disabilities, children and adults with disabilities are discovering that—while the landscape is still not fully barrier free—they can usually go about their business without encountering barriers or interruption.

The articles below illustrate the ways in which the ADA impacts the lives of community members, employees, college students and families living the Southeast Region of the United States. These stories—and others—are repeated every day in communities, businesses and on campuses throughout the United States.

Index of Contents

Accessible Cities: People with Disabilities Survey Public Facilities

Over a three year period, small teams of people, with and without disabilities, visited city halls, libraries, civic centers, and parks in 14 cities in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, and Tennessee. Their goal was to check the accessibility of these civic places and to see how well these public sites met the access needs of individuals with a variety of disabilities.

The intention was not to ‘catch their cities napping’ or to report them for not being in full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Instead, the goal was to examine and report on how easily—or not—people with visual, hearing, and mobility disabilities could enter a public facility and use the services available to people without disabilities.

One of the goals of the ADA is to remove access barriers and promote full and equal participation in civic life for individuals with disabilities. The cross-disability teams of people looking at access to public facilities in seven Southeast states were part of the Community Participation Research Project, conducted jointly by the Southeast ADA Center, its State Affiliates and the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University. This research project was unique because it used Participatory Action Research (PAR). PAR research is developed and implemented in full collaboration between people with disabilities and researchers, focusing on their concerns and interests while still maintaining research protocols and validity.

In this study, seven teams of 5-6 researchers surveyed sites in a total of 14 cities, two cities in each state. The cities were matched in terms of demographics. The only difference was that one city had previously reached a Settlement Agreement with the Department of Justice to correct access barriers identified in one or more of its city facilities. Georgia was used as a pilot site to test the survey instruments and the way in which the local researchers were trained. Cities in the other six states were surveyed over the next two years, with state teams visiting both of their two cities within a few days of each other.

One of the things they found was that many of the public entities did not fully understand what good access means. As one local researcher explained,

“It is unfortunate that some public venues think they are providing adequate access to services, but the consumer’s experience may be quite different.”

They also found that public entities often did not realize that people with different disabilities had different access needs. For example, two local researchers—one who uses a wheelchair and one who is blind—had very different experiences when they visited the same library. Both were able to enter the library easily. However, the person using a wheelchair was able to use the library’s computer independently to locate the book he wanted while the woman who was blind discovered that she could not use the library computers with a screen reader and that the staff didn’t know how to open the software that would let her search the files by herself.

In fact, one of the study findings was that people who were blind or who had low vision found the city sites less accessible overall than did people who used wheelchairs or who were deaf.

For example, because the public restrooms in a city park were not identified in Braille and raised lettering, one man who was blind started to enter the women’s restroom by mistake. Another, more frustrating, situation took place in a public library. One researcher asked about library materials for individuals with vision-related disabilities and received little helpful information. However, in talking to another researcher later, she discovered that the library had a good collection of audiobooks.

Researchers who used wheelchairs or who were hard-of-hearing also discovered some problems. Individuals who use wheelchairs identified barriers related to parking enforcement, steep ramps, counter heights, thresholds, and door handles. Another researcher contacted a civic center prior to arriving and asked if they had an assistive listening system (ALS). He was told that they did not have an ALS but on the day of the performance when he asked again, he was given headphones without comment or delay.

As a researcher pointed out:

“Most of the places I went, there was more assistance available than I turned up beforehand [on the website or by contacting the site directly]. Perhaps people didn’t know what was available or had not been trained to answer questions about providing assistance. All public places should have a brochure or flyer printed to show what accommodations or assistance they have.”

Researchers using a TTY (Telecommunication Device for the Deaf) found many public agencies either did not have one or did not know how to use it. And, in some cases, researchers noted that absent or hard to find and see signage, for accessible entrances, emergency exits, or identifying restrooms, was frustrating and challenging. More seriously, one researcher reported that when emergency exit information was reviewed for the audience at a civic center, there was no mention of accessible emergency exits.

Despite these access issues, the researchers reported delight at the many examples of accessibility that they encountered, including some new discoveries such as accessible park benches and picnic tables. One researcher noted “this was the most accessible website I have ever seen. I could completely access the entire website and library into my screen reader.” They also noted many staff contributed to positive experiences, including demonstrating a willingness to put together a needed accommodation. One researcher reported receiving a “very prompt and helpful response” and another added “excellent facility for accessibility. Staff is knowledgeable and sensitive to persons with disability.” In fact, almost two-thirds of the time researchers found that entities had a staff member who coordinated services for people with disabilities. Even when access barriers were encountered, the willingness of staff to try to resolve the issue went a long way toward easing the researchers’ frustration.

Finally, the PAR project provided opportunities for increased understanding and appreciation of all the issues involved in providing good access. Because people with disabilities were integral to the research from start to finish, they were aware of subtle access needs that others without disabilities would likely overlook. Their participation in the project also increased their own awareness of the areas where more education and guidance were needed.

“It’s always eye opening to realize how few people take issues of accessibility truly into consideration when running public places. Clearly, much more information is needed and ways to implement them developed.”

Another commented:

“I know how to get around my own city. Know the accessible entrances and how to ask for the accommodations I need. But when I visited the other city, I was clueless. Sometimes I had to circle the building several times before I found the accessible entrance or figured out where the elevator was. How would someone visiting my city figure out how to get places? I never thought about that before.”

As a result of their involvement with the PAR project, many researchers expressed positive feelings from having engaged in the site visits, learned a good deal, and for some, left feeling a greater desire to engage in local change efforts to remove access barriers.

The researchers also noted a growing awareness on the part of city staff:

“The last person who visited the city hall was one of the research team members without a disability. As she entered the hallway near the offices, she heard a couple of individuals talking. A gentleman said, “What I want to know is, are we prepared?” A woman responded, “We have spaces for wheelchairs….” The gentleman then said, “I’m not just talking about people in chairs, I mean all types – do we have alternative formats?””

The rest of the conversation was not clear. However, the team members clearly had increased staff awareness of the full range of disability access needs.

For free, confidential information, technical assistance and answers to all questions regarding the ADA, please contact your regional ADA Center by calling 1-800-949-4232 (voice/tty).

Accessible Businesses Welcome Everyone

For most people, their major concern when running errands and shopping is whether they can fit it all they need to do into the time available. For people with disabilities, however, particularly for those with physical disabilities, their major concern is whether they can get into the stores or buildings in the first place and, once in, whether they have access to the goods and services they need.

Stores, theaters and other buildings were not intended to shut out people with disabilities—but the built environment has been highly effective in denying access to people who have limited use of hands or legs. A single step, a one-inch threshold, a heavy door, or a round doorknob can make entry into a building difficult, if not impassible. And once someone with a mobility impairment has struggled to get inside, cluttered aisles or objects blocking call buttons on elevators can significantly impede their ability to do what it is that they came inside to do, whether that is to buy a new shirt or visit a physician’s office.

“For the most part, the bigger retail stores—like Walmart, Kohls, TJ Maxx—have plenty of room for me to get around,” says Dylan Brown of Nashville, TN. “But I still run into problems with the amount of items they try to put into the very small stores in malls and strip malls. Overstocking in the small stores means that I can’t get through the aisles, so I just don’t go in.”

Dylan has quadriplegia as the result of an automobile accident in 2002 and uses a powered chair. He drives an adapted van and can usually get around Nashville and do what he wants to do except when it comes to some places that are unclear on the concept of accessibility:

“There’s a newly renovated, posh bar in town. It has access into the bar and the restrooms are accessible. But there is not one seat in the place where I would be eye-level with my peers. Even the booths have a step up. I went out to the smoking patio but that was built up also, with wood high-rise seating all around the edge. There was no way I could have a drink and be at eye level with my friends. I couldn’t even put my drink down without reaching up to the table. It’s like they went out of their way to make it inaccessible.

“I felt so uncomfortable. I know I’m in a chair but I’m always around active people, and you get going and you just forget. Then, when you get to a place that is so blatantly inaccessible, the term crippled comes back in.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed nearly unanimously by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, mandates that places that offer their goods and services to the public must be accessible to people with a variety of disabilities. Effective January 26, 1992, all places of business have been required to make their goods and services available to and useable by people with disabilities to the extent that it is readily achievable (e.g., that changes can be accomplished without much difficulty or expense). Furthermore, all new construction and renovations to existing buildings must be accessible to and usable by people with disabilities to the fullest extent possible.

Lack of access is more than an inconvenience for people with disabilities; for many, accessible stores, professional offices, theaters, libraries, state and local government offices and medical facilities can mean the difference between a life of independence and full immersion in the community and one of dependence and restrictive living situations.

Living Independence for Everyone (LIFE) of Mississippi, the statewide Center for Independence (CIL) in Mississippi, believes so strongly in promoting independence for people with disabilities that the CIL uses Americorps volunteers to do community access surveys to ensure that people leaving nursing homes or other congregate facilities will be able to move about effectively within the community. The Americorps members in Project LINC focus on those places that individuals with disabilities were most likely to want to use. When doing a Project LINC site survey, the Americorps volunteers introduce themselves to the places they want to survey, provide information about the ADA and explain that their purpose is to make places more accessible for people with disabilities, not to report anyone for failure to comply with the ADA. They then ask permission to conduct the survey and to return at a later date for a follow-up visit.

Desmeon Thomas, of Jackson, Mississippi, was both an Americorps volunteer doing the surveys and a beneficiary of increased access in his immediate community. Desmeon sustained a spinal cord injury in 2002 when he was 19 years old. He approached the LIFE Center for assistance in learning how to live with a disability. When he learned about Americorps and Project LINC, he signed up as an Americorps volunteer, receiving a stipend for his work on the project and becoming eligible for $4000 year for his two years of service to put toward his education.

As Desmeon explains, “we would survey places that are just around the corner from where someone moving into a community would be living. That means places like corner stores, dollar stores—we surveyed a lot of dollar stores; that’s where we can afford to shop!—fast food restaurants and grocery stores.

“I’m quadriplegic, so I need a lot of help with everything. I use a power chair so I can get around on my own, but I’m not the lightest person in the world, and my parents are getting older. I didn’t want to have to go into a nursing home but I knew I couldn’t stay with my parents much longer either. So I looked for a way to live on my own. LIFE hooked me up with the Medicaid Waiver* program that pays for personal attendants to help me 8 hours a day, 7 days a week. I use them for four hours in the morning to get me up and dressed and ready for the day, for four hours at night to get me ready for bed.

“Now I rent my own house, drive a Dodge Caravan and can do most of my own shopping. Grocery stores have been great! I can get around easily, and they always send someone to help me if I ask. My power chair helps raise me up so I can usually reach things on the shelves. If not, the grocery store clerks help me.

“And the other places I need to go are also pretty accessible, thanks to the survey work we did. Well, sometimes I need to go into a side or back entrance to some places…and the movie theater near me only has accessible seats right in the very front row, which is too close to the screen and makes it hard to watch without getting a stiff neck. But for the most part I can get where I need and want to go.”

*The Medicaid Waiver: Section 1915 (c) of the Social Security Act enables states to request a waiver of applicable federal Medicaid requirements to provide enhanced community support services to those Medicaid beneficiaries who would otherwise require institutional care.

Reasonable Accommodations Mean Getting the Job Done

Employees with disabilities may do a job differently—they may use adapted computers, screen reading software, large print materials or raised desks that can accommodate a wheelchair—but they get the job done like any other employee in their position. They are not asking for special treatment or to be excused from performing the essential functions of their jobs. But they do ask that they be given the tools or supports they need to perform these tasks competently.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed almost unanimously by both the House and the Senate in July 1990. It provides civil rights protections to individuals with disability and prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. Title I of the ADA requires that employers make reasonable accommodations unless making those accommodations creates significant difficulty or expense. Reasonable accommodations are changes to the workplace or the way things are customarily done; they are intended to allow qualified employees with disabilities to perform the essential functions of their jobs.

Why is the Americans with Disabilities Act Needed?

Cheri Hofmann, who has a significant hearing loss, had worked as a paralegal position for 13 years, collecting awards and superior performance reviews throughout her career. Until her job duties changed in her 14th year, she never needed any changes to her workplace or different equipment to perform her job well. When her job duties in changed, however, she asked for a few, modest changes to her workplace.

“In my 14th year, my job had additional duties that required me to be able to assist clients while others were on break and to answer phones. I asked for a mirror to be placed where I could see the door opening when clients came in, a head set for the telephone with amplification, and to re-position my desk to also have a better view of the front door. They refused the mirror, saying it would be a distraction to the other paralegals; they said to reposition my desk would cause the entire area to have to be changed; and they said they ordered a head set, but it never came. Instead they gave me a phone with a volume control but it was not effective.”

None of these changes cost more than $30, but without them, Cheri was unable to do her job and was eventually forced to leave.

Cheri’s difficulties with her employer took place before the ADA too effect. Under Title I of the ADA now, however, employers with 15 or more employees are required to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants or employees with disabilities unless to do so would result in an undue burden. Reasonable accommodations are changes to the workplace, modifications in workplace policies, or provision of assistive technology that allow a qualified employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of the job.

What are Reasonable Accommodations?

A reasonable accommodation is any change to the work environment or to the way that things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities. Rene Cummins, Executive Director of a Center for Independent Living in North Carolina, has low vision who relies on assistive technology every day. She uses a screen reader to read computer text and a scanner to scan print materials into the computer where they can be read back to her. Christinne Rudd has cerebral palsy and walks with a cane. Her employer in Florida provided a printer in her office so that she doesn’t have to go to the main printer to retrieve letters and other documents. Her employer has also offered to provide a scooter, if necessary, when there are employee outings and reimburses her for cab fare for her local travel on company business.

Patricia Valladares is an outreach worker for a social services agency in Tennessee. Patricia is blind and uses JAWS software that reads computer text, and the Open Book program that scans in printed material and reads it back so she can read read and save printed documents. She also asks that handouts for conferences and trainings be given to her on CDs.

John Hobgood is a social worker in Texas who recived a traumatic brain injury in a motor vehicle accident. As the result of his head injury, John has difficulty paying attention, so he uses a daytimer to keep his schedule and relies on the Outlook calendar computer software to remind him of appointments. Reading is difficult, so John uses free screen reader software from Individuals with traumatic head injury often have difficulty concentrating at the end of the day. When his agency moved to a 4-day week of 10 hour days, John and another co-worker asked for a modified schedule in which they would remain on the 5-day week. Their requests were granted, and the two come into work on the 5th day, lock the door, answer phones, and catch up with their paperwork.

John Duplessis, a social worker in Alabama who became legally blind as an adult, relies on a tape recorder that is “glued to my side for dictating notes and recording conversations that I need to remember.” He uses Zoom Text software to enlarge text on his computer screen and uses its speech function to read aloud what is on the screen. John also has talking Caller I.D. on his landline and cell phones to announce the name and number of incoming calls. In addition, he uses glasses with magnification to read printed documents and to write. Even so, he notes wryly, “I don’t write quickly and my penmanship is not very good.”

Not all effective accommodations need to be provided by the employer. Many people with disabilities can use “off the shelf” assistive technology to meet their personal needs. For example, Eric Dupre who has a learning disability thrives in his fast-paced, unpredictable job as a news photojournalist. To keep himself on track, Eric carries “a small pad with me each day to write down my schedule and use an electronic pocket reminder for assignments that may be projected in the future. I use a GPS to assist me to find locations where I have to be. I purchased my own accommodations for under $100.”

Although many people with disabilities can perform all their job duties without an accommodation of any sort, others encounter workplace barriers that hinder or prevent them from performing competently on the job. By mandating reasonable accommodations and changes to the work environment as long as they do not create an undue burden, Title I of the ADA make it possible for qualified employees with disabilities to demonstrate their competence and ability to perform on the job.

Inclusion from the Start: Campus Collaboration Avoids Access Pitfalls

When changes are made to a college or university campus, planning ahead for access avoids costly errors. It also avoids the inadvertent creation of access barriers that make it difficult or impossible for students, visitors, and staff with disabilities to enjoy full use of all that the institution has to offer. One university—Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee—has taken steps to ensure that neither of these problems occur on their campus.

FSU’s fully collaborative process ensures that access is included from the very start when any new construction or renovation is planned. This entails coordination and collaboration among nearly 80 individuals, including the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity Compliance, the Facilities Vice President, Facilities Designer, Facilities Planners, and Project Manager as well as representatives from 20 or more other campus departments. It also requires some creative thinking and planning to assure maximum access throughout all phases of what can be a lengthy period of construction.

As Amy Wagner, Assistant Director of the University’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity Compliance explains,

“We try to proactively address construction issues prior to the initiation of any new construction efforts. However, there are times in which we have had to make adjustments during a construction build due to the length of time a project would take to complete. For instance, during a 10-month construction project, a sidewalk was opened and closed at various points and required a phasing in/out of the project. The road under construction was a half mile long and the construction was done in four phases. We discussed the impact of a phased project on students with and without disabilities. In addition, we examined the options for maintaining access during the construction period. Breaking the project into four phases allowed for access at all times during the construction process. As one section was completed, it was then re-opened to provide access while another section was closed according to the phased project schedule.”

In addition, collaboration and cooperation among all offices and departments has nurtured an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. Key players are routinely invited to participate in meetings in addition to the quarterly meetings of the entire planning team to ensure that accessibility concerns are addressed early on. For example, the campus is currently undergoing new construction activity in which Ms. Wagner has been called upon by project managers to address concerns involving ADA-related access issues such as installation of sidewalks, doorways, hood vents in school laboratories, detectable warnings, signage, and accessible routes/pathways around construction zones.

Ms. Wagner prefers not to refer to a project as challenging but as one that is “unknown territory” requiring innovative thinking and creativity on the university’s part to ensure that it is ADA compliant in all of its activities.

Florida State University entered into “unknown territory” in 2011 when the FSU Flying High Circus, one of only two collegiate circuses in the United States, wanted to purchase a new tent, seating, and flooring. The Circus wanted to purchase an interlocking floor but was aware that it might present access concerns. FSU wanted to ensure that the flooring was accessible to people with disabilities and did not present the possibility of a trip-hazard or an accessibility barrier for wheelchair users in the event the interlocking pads became disengaged. Ms. Wagner spent time researching precedence and best-practices governing this type of situation. As a result, the new tent, seating areas, and paths of travel throughout the tent not only meet but exceed the ADA standards for accessible seating and paths of travel.

FSU’s intentional effort to include Ms. Wagner in all planning efforts related to new construction projects is an example of a university that is committed to ensuring full inclusion and ensuring that full access is at the forefront of any and all ventures to enhance and/or improve the campus infrastructure. Ms. Wagner reiterates the importance of her office’s collaboration with facilities and maintenance staff, construction managers, and others involved in the planning of new construction from the very start to ensure that access and full inclusion are primary considerations throughout the life of any project.

The ADA: It’s a Family Affair

In our family, if I couldn’t go, none of us could go.

Most people think of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as legislation that promotes access and equal opportunity for people with disabilities. What they often don’t realize is that the ADA also creates access and equal opportunity for families and friends as well.

Why the ADA? Just ask Sara Ezell.

“In the past 40 years, I have seen things change hugely. It’s been an exciting time because of the ADA. If not for the ADA, where would I be today?”

Sara grew up in a close-knit family. Because she was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a bone disorder often called “brittle bone disease,” Sara used a wheelchair most of the time. When she was a child, “accessibility was an issue everywhere. Disability was not an issue in our family, but access was. When I could not get into a restaurant or a store with my brothers and parents, it was an insult to our whole family—and we didn’t go in. In our family, if I couldn’t go, none of us could go.”

When Sara became a teenager, things got to be embarrassing, especially when she went out on a blind date. Faced with the prospect of getting into an inaccessible entrance, Sara’s date would offer to lift her and her chair up the two stairs at the entrance, making an awkward situation even more uncomfortable.

When Sara entered Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, pre-ADA in 1989, no freshman dorm rooms were accessible. Vanderbilt was determined to have Sara on campus, so they turned an administration office into a dorm room. As Sara explains, “we made do with it. All of my neighbors were Deans, and I got to know them pretty well. But after 5:00 PM, no one was there. It was not too bad, but it was not a natural dorm experience, and I missed the experience of living in a dorm with other students.”

Vanderbilt continued in its efforts to provide campus-wide access, including dorm rooms, for its students with disabilities. Although the ADA had recently been passed and would be going into effect within two years, “nobody knew what to do yet. There was a two-inch thick book of scoping requirements from the US Access Board that the University used but it wasn’t clear who would pay for the changes.

“It took a lot of doing, but by the time I graduated, I was living in a hall with other students—and I had a choice of rooms to pick from! And with every dorm renovation, the University would add more rooms. After I graduated, I went to work for the ADA office at Vanderbilt. And it was fun to see the faces of incoming freshmen with disabilities when I told them you can live here or here and here…”

As Sara reflects on her experiences pre- and post-ADA, she notes that “now so many places are completely accessible. It’s amazing to see.”

It’s still a family affair

Sara’s disability has had a rippling effect across generations. Both of her brothers worked at an Easter Seals camp in East Tennessee one summer and loved it. Her oldest brother, Chase, got a degree in Recreational Therapy. Chase was interested in physical accessibility of Tennessee State Parks, so he wrote his Master’s Thesis on the topic—using Sara as a guinea pig to “try out” the steepness of ramps and the smoothness of trails. “It was not always fun,” she recalls.

As for the next generation, Sara says, “Kids get it at a level that adults just don’t.”

“My two nieces and my nephew are my pride and joy, and they are not afraid to ask questions about disability. My niece Evelyn has befriended a little girl in her classroom who has cerebral palsy. And she had a lot of questions for me, like ‘why does she have a lady with her all the time?’ My niece just wanted to understand so she could figure out how she could help her and sit with her at lunch.

“It’s been fun to teach them about accessibility. My little nephew is just now starting to discover about accessibility. When we are together and there’s some place that his Aunt Sissy cannot go, he’s annoyed to death and just doesn’t understand. There’s a generation of militant little people who are going to be just great!”

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