By Christie Gilson
Twenty-five years after President George H.W. Bush first signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law, access to places of public accommodation has opened up, and awareness of the needs of people with physical and sensory disabilities has spread significantly in the United States. Even as incredible strides have been made for people with some disabilities, the needs of others have only fleetingly been addressed by the ADA.
The unemployment and underemployment rates for Americans with disabilities are still disappointingly high. The needs of Americans with psychiatric, neurological, cognitive, and other non-apparent disabilities have not been adequately addressed by the ADA. Certainly, more education of the public, gatekeepers of power and privilege, business owners, and employers must continue. Particularly in times of economic uncertainty, such as we are experiencing now, the progress people with disabilities have made thanks to the ADA can be fragile. However, I feel that those of us who have benefited from the ADA should reflect back on what has changed in our lives since the early 1990’s.
Prior to the ADA there were almost no braille signs on hotel room doors, bathrooms, elevators, and fire exits. Post ADA The only lack of compliance I’ve seen recently was at Hotel Bethlehem in Eastern Pennsylvania in March of 2008. The manager I spoke with claimed that the reason they did not have the buttons inside of their elevator brailled was that it would interfere with the historic nature of their elevator. That instance excepted, I have benefited from lots of signage as I independently navigate hotels, airports, stores, restaurants, and other places of public accommodation in the United States.
Though I did not use a guide dog pre-ADA, and never experienced it personally, I would not be surprised to hear that hotels with “no pet” policies barred access for those with guide dogs. One disturbing circumstance that I have experienced since using a guide dog post-ADA is hotels attempting to charge us a pet fee. Now that the ADA is on the books, I need not look up individual states’ guide dog access laws to ensure that my guide can stay with me in my hotel room. All I have to do when encountering front desk staff who try to prevent me from taking my guide dog into my room is ask the hotel to call the police. Invariably, the police uphold the ADA regulations, and my dog is welcome to stay in the hotel with me. Similarly, there is no pet charge assessed, unless my guide dog causes damage of some kind.
I had no way to independently read my bank, credit card, Social Security, or utility statements before the ADA. Of course, many now view statements online; others scan their statements; still others check balances through telephone services. For me, there is something very satisfying about having a braille or large print statement in my hands. I can track my electricity usage across the seasons. This independent access comes thanks to the ADA.
Up to this point, I have shared stories that many of us can relate to. Now, I will recount several unfortunate experiences I have encountered that relate to the ADA. My date and I were denied entry at a restaurant in Normal, Illinois in the early 1990’s because of my guide dog. When the owner of the restaurant refused to let me in, I asked them to call the police. The police came. In the meantime, the owner’s attorney came out into the parking lot to try to discourage me from complaining. I filed a complaint with the police. We negotiated, and the restaurant owner provided me and a guest with free meals and promised to train their staff on the law’s provisions related to guide dog access.
In March of 2007 I was in Clinton New Jersey, and I made a taxi reservation to go to Newark airport. I warned the dispatcher that I had a guide dog so that the taxi driver would not be surprised when he picked me up. The dispatcher told me that he would charge me for a limousine service instead of a taxi service to accommodate the dog’s need for space. Despite my attempts to explain that my dog had ridden in countless cars and that a limo was not necessary or desired, he insisted. I filed a complaint with New Jersey’s Department of Transportation. Though the taxi service’s company did not apologize, they did agree to training of staff. The New Jersey Department of Transportation had hoped to arrange a settlement, but the statute of limitations expired by the time the case was resolved.
In May of 2014, I was in Boston, Massachusetts on State Department business. My sighted assistant had gotten out of a taxi. I had given the taxi driver more money than what the fare was, and I had asked for change. He spent two or three minutes making noises of looking through his pockets and areas in the car. He told me that he had no change. My sighted assistant was watching this, but the taxi driver did not know she was there. Once he saw her looking in the window, he magically found change for me. I filed a complaint with the appropriate agency. I haven’t heard back
about this situation yet.
I have banked at several establishments since the ADA was passed. In two instances the banks refused to provide me braille account statements. One was for a checking account at a medium-sized bank near Chicago; the other was for a house loan statement with a well-known, national bank. In the first instance in 1997, I initially raised my concern with the bank manager of my branch, and no progress was made. I wrote a letter of complaint to the bank’s president and copied their main attorney. At that point, they did comply with my request for accessible, brailled checking account statements.
A brailled house loan statement request was made by me to Wells Fargo & Company in the fall of 2010. The bank refused to provide the statement in braille. I am ashamed to admit that I let it drop at that point, as I was putting all of my energy towards my career and my family life. However, I saw a listserv announcement that the Department of Justice was investigating Wells Fargo for effective communication violations under Title III of the ADA. They asked people who had been discriminated against to contact them; I did so. My concern was recently resolved to my satisfaction. Their staff has been trained appropriately, and I am assured that effective communication will now be provided to their customers with disabilities.
In reflecting on the ADA, I recognize that we all have our own views on the role of civil rights legislation. Those who promote small, federal government may feel that such laws are not helpful. Being a social worker and educator who has studied how women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and members of the GLBTQ community have won our rights through such legislation, I revere these laws.
My reverence for civil rights legislation stems not from the understanding that I have benefited from it but because I am privileged to have witnessed how civil rights legislation does change the way people think. As I was growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s, terrible racial and homophobic jokes were the norm in my overwhelmingly white, rural community in Central Illinois. Thank goodness, I rarely hear such thinly disguised messages of hate and insecurity anymore. From those times through the 1990’s, I would spend the bulk of my time in disability awareness training in reassuring members of the public or students that people with disabilities are not frightening. Thanks to inclusionary policies in classrooms across our country, I now spend my time during disability awareness presentations encouraging participants to reflect on their own unconscious biases and assumptions. How far society has come in only a few decades!
Personally, I find advocating for my own rights very stressful. I would much rather advocate for the rights of others. I despise language such as the word complaint. However, when I allow organizations to ignore their responsibilities under the ADA, I make it worse for the next person who needs to use the law to convince a company to change their policies, procedures, or physical plant.
I would like to thank Dianne Michels of the Lehigh Valley Council of the Blind for sharing her struggles to request large print labels for medications ordered thru Express Scripts on a listserv to which we both subscribe. Dianne, the ignorance and dismissive attitude you encountered when raising your request with this company saddens but does not surprise me. I tire of having to bear the brunt of such ignorance myself when trying to educate others about obligations under the ADA or other legislation. Whenever I am advocating, I think of the lead goose in the V formation. It has to stop flying in front to rest periodically. It is difficult to be the pioneer that promotes change. But, when our advocacy gets policies and procedures to improve and provides better access for those who come after us, we have done a great deed. Let each of us draw from the community of support that is the Pennsylvania Council of the Blind as we continue to advocate for a world that serves the needs of all.