Ms. Wheelchair 2020 Reflects on the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990 to make aspects of American society more accessible to those with disabilities. The term ADA was a household name for me. My family would always say if anyone discriminates against me because I had a disability, the ADA was there to protect me. I did not truly comprehend at the time what the Americans with Disability Act was and how this piece of legislation would constantly shape my life as a person with a disability in this country. As I grew up, I learned it was so much more than that.
WHAT IS THE ADA?
Born in 1987, I am very fortunate and grateful that others before me paved the way for that groundbreaking piece of legislation to be passed. That path consisted of decades of discrimination and being placed in the shadows of society. With its implementation it slowly began to change others perception of the disabled person and what it actually meant to be disabled. All aspects of American society were impacted and the act expressed this with five cornerstones or “titles” including employment, public services, public accommodations, telecommunications, and miscellaneous. These titles impacted me in some way in different stages of my life, but public services and public accommodations affected me the most.
Public Services and Public Accommodations, which is under Title II and III respectively is something I needed from the very start. My primary disability is cerebral palsy and in the first years of my life I was a wheelchair user. Access to restaurants, retail stores, schools, hotels, doctor’s offices and movie theaters was a necessity, and this of course extended to their restrooms. With these barriers removed I was able to do activities with my peers and my family. For those businesses it gave them reasonable accommodations to add to their usual business practices and it made it necessary for them to communicate effectively with their customers with disabilities.
CLEARING A PATH TO A CAREER
While I was approaching high school graduation and had my sights set on acquiring a college degree I knew employment was on the horizon. Contributing and being a productive member of society is something that the disabled population craves also, and I was no exception. However, there was fear and hesitation surrounding the thought of employment. I was used to my peers judging me unfairly all throughout my time in school. This time around it was going to be a person of authority that can determine if I was going to be earning an income or not. Even though the ADA gave me rights in this particular situation and reasonable accommodations as an applicant and employee, it did not take away the bias that still exists due to years of discrimination passed down through the generations.
Having a physical disability meant I would have to rely on my intellect alone to get an employer to hire me. I had to experience the conundrum of needing work experience to become hired, but in order to gain that work experience I had to become hired in the first place. There is an added struggle because of the fear of disclosing to an employer whether you have a disability or not. Every step of the interview and hiring process for someone with a disability requires unlimited tenacity and courage. Some accommodations I’ve requested in the workplace include preferential seating at the end of a workstation row to easily get from my desk to the restroom. In addition, I was given a remote-control device that would open restroom doors before approaching them. These accommodations enabled me to perform my job to that company’s standard.
NAVIGATING THE CHALLENGES OF TRANSPORTATION
When you have a disability so much of your day is spent preparing to actually get to your job. Then, you have to put the rest of your energy in performing your job. Transportation was a huge part of my daily life and still is. It is an aspect of life we cannot live without. It is what actually makes us able to reach the great opportunities that life has to offer, but it can also cause us to miss out on those same opportunities if it is not fully accessible. Even though I was a licensed driver and learned how to drive with hand controls I would still have to save to purchase a vehicle. In the meantime, paratransit was my mode of transportation and my accessibility to paratransit was far from ideal.
I worked the 8-5 shift but in order for me to get to work by 8am I had to wake up at 3am to give myself enough time to do the activities required to get to work on time because paratransit is a shared ride service for riders with disabilities that will take you from door-to-door. This means they have to pick up other riders besides yourself and get everyone where they need to go. The regulations set is that you have to live within ¾ mile of a bus stop for them to come to your door. What happens if they can’t come to your door?
My solution to that was to have an Uber come and take me to a location where not only the paratransit service could pick me up but a location where I felt safe enough to stand outside at 5am. I did not get to choose what vehicle picked me up. The majority of the time the vehicle that would arrive would be one that I could not physically climb into. But my job was at stake and that meant I was going to get there one way or another. I would struggle and climb into these vehicles by contorting my body in ways it was never meant to move. This was all being done while trying to beat the timer before incurring surcharge fees, and having an Uber driver struggling to get my walker in their trunk. Once paratransit arrived, I would spend 30-90 minutes on the vehicle before I would arrive at my final destination. Finally I was at work, but now I had to physically get to where I worked inside the building to complete a 9-hour work day and then wait for paratransit to come back to get me and complete that leg of the journey essentially again. I usually would arrive home at 7-7:30pm completely drained of energy and would have to repeat it the next day.
GAINING A NEW PERSPECTIVE AND NEW DETERMINATION
Then one day everything changed. I acquired a second disability that affected my spine. The world around me was now seen from a sitting position and my physical reach became drastically limited. Prior, I thought the list of obstacles I had to face was long, but becoming a full-time wheelchair user, it was as if I was looking at the world with a new set of eyes. Doing the simplest of tasks was something I had to do differently because getting out of my chair posed a risk to my spine. It made me realize how the world really needed to step up when it came to accessibility. When a person can’t turn on their lights or reach their sink faucet from their wheelchair the lack of accessibility they face is unavoidable. Quickly I became frustrated with my new situation, but I did not want to stay in that mindset. After enough was enough I essentially made it a full-time job to find resources to create a new life for myself. As difficult as that process was at times it led me to outstanding opportunities that I did not know existed.
I thought if Personal Care Attendants (PCA) can help me with everyday activities it would take me less energy and would also put less stress on my body to enable me to do more. This worked and my new life began. Luckily for me I have a recreational center in my town that focuses on the Special Olympics and Paralympics. They provide adaptive sports year-round for the community. The funny thing is, I have never played a sport in my life. Honestly, I did not even consider it while growing up because of my disability. But I no longer wanted to let my disability hold me back. I said yes, to every sport they offered. The person who swore off sports was playing sports at least three times per week and making lifelong friendships with other athletes. It went from being a social hobby to something more. I made the Paralympic USA Table Tennis team.
ADVOCATING & HELPING OTHERS
The confidence I gained from participating in adaptive sports influenced me to reach for other opportunities. I went to my local Center of Independent Living (CIL) to find more activities, and I ended up networking with others. I am now part of their grassroots group and have been invited to sit on their Board of Directors. However, I was still facing obstacles while trying to find and keep employment. This included the convoluted process of keeping other benefits I received because of my disability. I wanted to help others avoid these obstacles, and it ignited the spark to advocate. Becoming a Certified Benefits Planner did just that. Benefits planners educate others with disabilities on SSI and Medicaid and guide them through the process of earning wages and reporting them to the Social Security Administration.
As an ambassador and spokesperson for ABLE United I learned how to properly public speak and educate Social Security beneficiaries and their families how ABLE accounts allow them to save money while receiving federal benefits without jeopardizing their eligibility. Shortly after, I learned about Ms. Wheelchair Florida and their mission of advocating for the millions of Americans with disabilities by speaking to the public and policymakers about breaking down the attitudinal and architectural barriers that affect individuals with disabilities. Being chosen as Ms. Wheelchair Florida gave me a platform to make transportation more accessible and help others like myself reach every opportunity available to them.
Reflecting back on everything that has happened in order for the ADA to come to fruition and how it has empowered millions of people to build a life for themselves like the one I am living now is bittersweet. It gave us rights to accessibility and a comparable life experience to citizens without disabilities. This year marks a special year that commemorates a piece of legislation that changed the lives for all American citizens and generations to come. Learning to adapt to this ever-changing world is one of the first lessons one learns when they have a disability. The ADA must also adapt alongside us. Our country took a huge step on that summer day thirty years ago, but it takes all disabled individuals and their allies to continue to bring attention to the importance of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
By working together we all can encourage change, but change can only happen if your voice is heard.