Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

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20 Years of ADA in the USA – Have Things Really Changed?

Yesterday marked the 21st anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I tweeted about it, pondering whether or not things have changed significantly since then.

Things have changed – we’re seeing more and more curb cuts, wide aisles, no-step entries and accessible bathrooms. Companies have TTYs, and many provide written materials in alternative formats (braille, tape, digital format, etc). But are things *better*? Perhaps things are better in the same way that a broken ankle is better than a sprained ankle…

Brick & Mortar vs Anti-Discrimination

But the ADA is not a "brick & mortar" law – or it’s not supposed to be just that anyway. The Americans with Disabilities Act is an anti-discrimination law. It is supposed to protect people with disabilities and ensure equal access. I am concerned that while some physical accessibility is improving, attitudes aren’t really changing. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if things might be getting worse. John Hockenberry alludes to that in his 1996 book “Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence“. He explained that after the ADA was passed, Joe Q Public believed people with disabilities were now ok, because the ADA existed – but did not perceive they had to do anything themselves. Instead of increasing the sense of responsibility, the ADA became the responsible entity to help people with disabilities. Never mind that the ADA is just a law, it can’t do anything in and of itself!!!

Things to Consider

  • Public transport is not fully accessible – surely all bus fleets have been replaced at least once since 1992.
  • And for those busses that do have a ramp or a lift, why are so many of them "broken"?
  • Over the road busses (Long distance, e.g. Greyhound) are largely not accessible.
  • Companies have TTYs, but don’t know how to use them.
  • Wide "accessible" aisles in stores are cluttered with display cabinets.
  • New constructions routinely fail to meet ADAAG.
  • The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is nearly double the non-disabled population (US Bureau of Labour Statistics).
  • Old buildings sometimes have portable ramps to provide access, but often staff refuse to bring the ramp out.
  • Accessible housing is extremely difficult to find (but then the ADA doesn’t cover housing issues)

The list could continue.


In that twitter conversation, one of my followers stated that "The place the ADA changed the most is Las Vegas. Most accessible city in the union." Here also I think that we have to be careful as to what has actually changed. Perhaps there are more accessible hotel rooms. But how accessible are they? Are the shower-heads left at a level that can be reached by a wheelchair user? Are the rooms available with combinations of single and double beds (why do hotel staff automatically assume that someone accompanying a wheelchair user is a personal attendant rather than a spouse?).

I remember reading the story of a wheelchair user travelling from the UK to Las Vegas. They said they’d expected things to be so accessible, so much better, especially since the ADA. But their experience proved to be a nightmare. They encountered a lot of attitudinal issues, which they weren’t used to. As if having complied with ADAAG (even if only partly) meant that the hotel and its staff had nothing more to do to provide an accessible experience to people with disabilities.

I was told of another wheelchair user who couldn’t get to the counter where coffee was being served, because the poles and rope forming a zigzag line to it were too narrow to let the wheelchair through. When this person asked staff to help, the staff shrugged and said they’d have to go to the counter, ignoring the comment that it wasn’t possible.

The Future Of It All

There’s no doubt, things are improving. But there discrimination against people with disabilities is still rampant in employment, public services, public accommodations, telecominations, and transportation. In housing as well. You can’t legislate attitudes. And until attitudes are changed, the situation for people with disabilities will not really get better.

Let’s rejoice in the things that have improved. But let us not rest on our laurels and become complacent. We must keep advocating, educating, and fighting where appropriate for our rights.