I am a high school student and last fall was in an accident and injured both of my legs. As a result, I used a wheelchair for the brief span of two months. Before my accident, I was sympathetic to people with disabilities, but my feelings were far from completely empathetic. I did not realize that many people who are unable to walk suffer silently and for reasons I never imagined.
In addition to whatever ailments might be plaguing disabled people, they often encounter an additional hurdle seldom talked about and often ignored — inaccessibility.
It was an issue that I had not even considered before my accident, for I had taken my ability to freely move about for granted. I could never have guessed that in addition to the pain I was in and my concern about whether I would be able to walk normally again, I would have to deal with the anxiety of trying to navigate my wheelchair in restaurants, stores and other public areas.
I began to notice things I had not noticed when I was able to walk: the absence of curb cuts on sidewalks; bathroom stalls too small to accommodate a wheelchair; doors too narrow for my wheelchair; unfinished and cracked pavement and sidewalks, and buildings that were completely inaccessible to people in wheelchairs.
My shock at the inaccessibility of many public areas only increased each time I ventured out of my home. After doing some research, I realized that many of the businesses I visited were in violation of the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and its subsequent 2008 revision.
In one restaurant in St. Louis Park, for example, I spent 10 minutes trying to maneuver into a bathroom that could be accessed only by a narrow hallway and a 90-degree corner turn that was unforgivingly close to the bathroom door. A server at the restaurant struggled to help while customers waited patiently behind me. My parents e-mailed the restaurant about the situation but received no response.
During a visit to a Maple Grove restaurant, I was simply gawked at by servers as I tried to maneuver my wheelchair through the crowded configuration of tables and chairs to reach the restroom. And at a gift shop in southern Minnesota, the owner just said that she was sorry her store was not more accessible.
It gave me much to think about in the following days as I recovered, and it was clear to me that despite protections given to the disabled, many people have failed to take my situation, and the situation of the permanently disabled, seriously. It seems that many business owners think that ensuring accessibility for all customers is optional, or they simply have failed to give consideration at all to people with disabilities.
Twenty-five years after the initial passage of the ADA, there is still much progress to be made. As those in the baby boomer generation grow older and begin to require accessible accommodations, it is crucial that businesses and buildings comply with ADA standards, not just because they want to make money from disabled customers, but because it is the right of the disabled to move reasonably about in the public areas of our country.
Recently, news stories have arisen about lawyers and others who may be manipulating the ADA in an attempt to extract unwarranted payments from businesses. If these accusations are true, they are inexcusable. However, this should not be allowed to distract from the very real need to make public areas open to those who are disabled.
Economically speaking, as more and more people depend upon wheelchairs and other devices for mobility, it would be unwise to refuse to make modifications to a business and risk alienating the disabled. Ensuring accessibility is also important for moral and ethical reasons to prevent the marginalization of the disabled. And from a personal perspective, there is no way of predicting when you may be forced to depend upon others to make your world more accessible. More effort must be made to fulfill the requirements as well as the spirit of the ADA.
Kate Ross, of Plymouth, is a student.