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Detroit Free Press
By Zlati Meyer, Free Press Staff Writer
July 26, 2010
Marva Ways remembers peering longingly through restaurant windows at the diners enjoying their meals.
All too often, she was unable to join them because her wheelchair couldn't fit through the door or maneuver up the stairs.
Today, the 60-year-old Dearborn Heights woman and millions of others who have benefited will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The legislation made everything from sign- language interpreters at speeches to public restroom grab bars to anti-discrimination hiring policies possible.
"Before the ADA was passed, it was almost like people with disabilities had no civil rights," Ways said. "A lot of it had to do with attitudinal barriers."
Fifteen percent, or 41.3 million, of (noninstitutionalized) Americans have disabilities, according to the most recent American Community Service data from the U.S. Census.
Paralyzed in a 1976 car accident, Ways told the Free Press she often had to deal with inaccessibility issues when she began traveling the country as a disability-rights advocate.
"People didn't recognize us as the first-class citizens that we were," said Ways, a professional motivational speaker who was the first runner- up in the 2005 Ms. Wheelchair America contest.
Michigan was among the first states in the country to have laws protecting disabled people, and in some areas is stricter than the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the head of Wayne State University's disability law clinic.
"Michigan was an early leader in the field of disability civil rights," said Professor David Moss, who teaches discrimination law.
In 1976, the state enacted what was called the Michigan Handicappers' Civil Rights Act to r require accessibility and outlaw discrimination.
Under federal law, only businesses that have more than a certain number of employees are bound by the ADA. But Michigan's stricter law applies to companies that have only one employee.
In 1973, when Congress was revising a statute that provided funding for vocational rehabilitation training, it included several provisions -- little noticed at the time -- that forbade any program that received federal funding from discriminating based on disability, Moss explained.
By the late 1980s, the ADA was a natural next step after an era when many under-recognized groups, including African Americans and women, fought to be acknowledged. The measure, enacted 20 years ago today, also coincided with the national sweep of deinstitutionalization, which had been motivated by the wave of parents of disabled children around the 1940s who wanted to enroll them in public schools.
"The way to celebrate what this law really means to people with disabilities is the simple fact that you see so many disabled people out and about and part of the community and part of our society -- that it's so commonplace you don't even think about it anymore," said Richard Bernstein, a Farmington Hills disability rights attorney.
Bernstein, 36, who is blind, has traveled extensively. He said no country compares with America's laws requiring equality for disabled people.
"This is one law that the U.S. should take tremendous pride in," Bernstein said. "For people with disabilities at this time and at this place, there is no greater country than the United States of America."
Although people have become more understanding and inclusive of people with disabilities, there has been some public backlash, Moss said. The use of new service animals, like ducks who calm down people with mental illness or monkeys that predict seizures, has been questioned along with a plethora of lawsuits claiming discrimination. Among the latter, Moss said, was one filed against a strip club that wasn't wheelchair accessible.
"It's been 20 years since the ADA was passed, and if a restaurant is supposed to be accessible after 20 years and it isn't, whose fault is that?" Moss said. "The lawyer's fault for bringing the suit, or the restaurant's for not being accessible?"
Years ago, if Sheryl Emery wanted to find out how late a shop was open, she couldn't call up and ask what the store hours were. She had to drive there to ask or ask someone to call for her.
It's not that her budget couldn't accommodate a telephone: The telephone couldn't accommodate her.
Emery is deaf, and before the ADA, people on both ends of the phone had to have TTY machines. They enable deaf people to type over phone lines to communicate. Now, professional relay services -- a hearing person serving as intermediary between the TTY machine user and the hearing party -- are mandatory.
The watershed federal legislation mandated such assistance tools for disabled people, along with architectural upgrades to public spaces for physically disabled people and equal accessibility to everything from jobs to government programs to movie theaters.
"If you were deaf back in the early '80s, you were dependent on volunteers ... You couldn't have direct conversation with someone who didn't have a TTY," Emery, director of the state's Division on Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Lansing, said in an interview using updated telecom technology.
When someone without a TTY machine calls the 50-something Southfield resident, the relay operator doesn't type the conversation to Emery. Instead, she watches the operator on a video screening sign what the other person is saying.
Ways has used a wheelchair for 34 years. Among her frustrations, she recalled people addressing her daughter instead of her, getting a perfunctory apology after finding her wheelchair damaged at an airport baggage claim and being unable to go to local government offices to conduct business because of a lack of wheelchair ramps.
Detroit streets are dotted with orange barrels as the city redoes its sidewalk curb cuts so they properly accommodate wheelchair access. Before that, the city was sued for using buses that had broken wheelchair lifts.
"Here we are in 2010, the 20th anniversary of the ADA, and we're discussing curb cuts being done correctly," Ways said.
One of the most recent publicized battles involved disabled veterans and others upset over wheelchair seating and accessibility at the University of Michigan football stadium. U-M officials were eventually pressured to make changes as part of major renovations to the Big House to better accommodate fans with wheelchairs.
Ways said despite the successes of the ADA, "People with disabilities, even nowadays, have to be vigilant that there are reasonable accommodations made in the workplace and the everyday environment."
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