Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The ADA and 21 Years of Progress

Contributed by Donna Smith

July 26 is a date that will never slip by unnoticed for me. Twenty-one years ago the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law. The ADA is a civil rights law which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. If it was something I could hold in my hands, it would be my ticket to full inclusion in society.

Each morning as I wait at the bus stop, I hear an automated announcement of the route and destination every time a bus pulls up and opens its doors. This allows me the chance to pick the bus I want to board without assistance. Most times the operator kneels the bus to lower the step and while this is not strictly necessary for me, the older I get, the more I appreciate the service. I board the bus, pay my fare and take a seat. The bus pulls away, and I take out my MP3 player and sit back to enjoy reading a book. At this point, I feel like every other commuter on the bus. I’m just another professional going into the office. So far, my ticket to full inclusion is working nicely!

Following the Title II Part B requirements for public transportation, many providers have been able to gradually replace older buses with newer ones that are better equipped to provide accessible service. Some transit systems have been able to install automated announcement systems which not only announce the route and destination of the bus each time the doors open, but which also announce most stops as the bus approaches. Still other systems have worked diligently to train their operators to call out the stops and to understand the value this brings to the customer. Both allow me and other customers who are blind to board the right bus and deboard as we like independently. Having the same sense of orientation of where I am and where I am going as do all other transit customers goes a long way toward reducing the stress of independent travel.

Nevertheless, full inclusion can be elusive. Two stops later on my commute, someone gets on the bus and takes the seat next to me. After a few seconds, she says, “That’s a wonderful dog you have there,” referring to my service dog who is tucked under my seat and is taking advantage of her commute time to nap. With a surreptitious press of the button to stop my book I reply, “Yes, she is. Thank you,” and then press the button to start reading again. Next I hear “I just think it’s marvelous how they can train those dogs to take care of people like you.” This time I don’t interrupt my reading and just say “She’s a very good dog.” “It’s just amazing how she knows which bus to take and I guess she must know right where you’re going. Where are you going today, honey?”

Taking out my ear buds, I turn to her and say, “I’m on my way to work, and my dog actually has no clue which bus to take or where I’m going.” I then attempt to explain how people who are blind can live, work and play independently and the role of guide dogs as politely as possible. When I am able to return to reading, it is with a little inner sigh that while I can get on the bus and go to work just like everyone else, not all of my fellow passengers are so readily accepting of my equality.

As the training manager for ESPA I am privileged to listen to many stories from both transportation providers and transportation customers with disabilities, and there is no doubt in my mind that the passage of the ADA and the 21 years of refining its implementation has had a very positive impact on accessible transportation services. As a result, a lot of people have also been educated about those of us with disabilities and how we fought for the passage of the ADA not only to get on the bus, but to be treated as equals by our fellow citizens. Nearly a century ago (1916) Helen Keller said in a speech “All I ask, gentlemen, is a fair field and no favor.” These words still beat true in the heart of the disability movement today. Every day that I have the opportunity to provide training and technical assistance around accessible transportation is another opportunity to move us a little closer to the overall goal of full inclusion.

As I continue my commute into work, my bus neighbor gets off and someone else takes her seat. After a few seconds he says “Excuse me,” and I pull out my ear buds. “I’m sorry to bother you,” my new bus neighbor continues, “but I need to get to 17th and L. Can you tell me how to get there?” With a smile I tell him he needs to get off at the next stop, go to the corner, turn left to cross the street and continue on to the next corner to find his destination. “Thanks,” he says. “Pretty dog!” Thank you!” I say. Sometimes, my ticket to full inclusion works absolutely!

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