From My WindowIssue Date: March 5, 2020
Janie Thibodeau Martin
In 1990, the U.S. passed a law called the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. One of the most visible parts of this law was the appearance of designated parking spaces, and the addition of ramps to many buildings. The law is 30 years old, and I am just now acquiring true appreciation for this regulation, because of some experiential learning I am getting. (Note: there are many other aspects of ADA that are out of scope of this column, but make for some enlightening reading as well.)
At the time ADA was passed, people who are against "over-reaching government regulation" of businesses complained that it would be costly for them to comply with the law, although building owners were allowed to defer modifications until the time of major renovations. And similarly, to their opposition to the regulation of smoking in private businesses such as restaurants, some felt "let the customers decide if they want to patronize business that allow smoking/don't provide wheelchair access."
But I now recognize a grave injustice was being done to disabled people for decades, and the ADA was a wise and well-overdue law. Imagine an on campus medical clinic that couldn't be entered by a student in a wheelchair. (This example is from my own college experience in the ඎ's.) Imagine not being able to go in a courtroom to be a defendant or a juror without the indignity and risk of being carried up steps. Think about not being able to attend concerts or movies because the building had stairs. Even some apartments, churches and stores were off limits to those who depended on wheelchairs, as are the homes of most friends and family members.
But as noble as the law is, challenges remain. Some of the challenges are simply lack of understanding on the public's part (and I certainly would have included myself in this, until recently.) And some are things beyond what any law might require, but are more of being alert to, and having empathy, for the situation of others.
Mike and I enjoy taking a person who uses a motorized wheelchair to lunch periodically. I am not going to identify him/her, because they ask no one's pity and do not complain. But I will point out this person is a disabled veteran, and deserves dignity and respect. I will refer to this person as "B."
In order to take B out, we use a handicapped accessible van. Mike took on the challenge of learning to utilize it, and how to secure the wheelchair once it is onboard. It is an intimidating task to me, and I would have a hard time doing it myself. To get into the van, a ramp is extended through the side sliding door of the modified van. This ramp takes up about five feet of space extended. If you have ever seen the yellow "hash" marked blacktop next to what seems like oversized handicapped parking, this area is necessary for the ramp to extend; beyond the five or so feet needed for the ramp, there must be room for the wheelchair to turn and face straight up the ramp. The footprint of motorized chairs adds another 3-4 feet to the amount of space needed to line up with the ramp, and gives room to do that without scraping along any adjoining vehicle.
Imagine what happens when we exit a building and find someone has parked so close to the van that even an able-bodied person would have a hard time getting a door open. The only solution, and the one we resorted to when someone did this to us during an outing, is to pull the van out into the parking lot to allow B to get in. In the specific instance I am talking about, that meant we blocked access into and out of the small parking lot for the amount of time it takes to enter the van, get the chair's seat belt fastened, and then add front and back tie-down straps bolted to the floor that hold the chair from flying forward or backward in an impact. These work on a ratchet mechanism and it easily takes ten minutes to finish before we retract the ramp. In the meantime, we are totally obstructing traffic; because someone didn't notice the signage in the designated area, or decided all that empty space next to the van wasn't really needed.
I honestly was tempted to go back into the restaurant and find the person who parked that car and show them the problem they created, but B is unfortunately used to such issues and dislikes drama and attention on their personal behalf.
Another challenge is restaurant tables that are tightly spaced. Working the chair through narrow paths, and having to ask people to pull in their chairs or step aside to get to our table is uncomfortable; it is nice when there is a table without obstructions in front of it but that's not always available. B doesn't like to go to some places where we enjoy the food, because the tables are so tight it's always an uncomfortable battle for us to be seated.
If you are a host or hostess, it's always wonderful if you proceed us to the table and remove one of the chairs from the area to make room for the wheelchair. Taking it well out of the way allows for the extra space needed to maneuver the wheelchair into the proper place at the table, because bumping into furniture left close-by and in the way is embarrassing.
There is one place Mike and I love to go that we will never take B, because the ramp they have is constructed of flimsy plywood. It may meet the requirement for a ramp, but the motorized chair weighs several hundred pounds empty and more occupied. I honestly don't think this ramp is safe to use and as a result, we won't ever be able to share our favorite meal there with B. The chances of me noticing this ramp a year ago would have been zero " now I notice such things all the time. If the ramp hasn't been shoveled and is covered with snow, or worse yet ice, the chair may not have enough traction to make it up the ramp without a couple of strong pushers helping it.
This experience has also made me understand what it is like for the full-time companions and caretakers of people like B. The constant "on-watch" feeling I have on our outings is a way of life for those people; they need to be constantly advocating for someone else.
I am sure B never thought about depending on a wheelchair years ago. Nor did I. But spending time with B has taught me a lot. And because none of us know what the future holds, we should all be advocates for the ADA. It's not perfect, but I now see what life was like for people before we had it. And even with it, every outing is still a significant challenge.
Song stuck in my head: "Rain Song" by Led Zeppelin. This was a favorite of mine in my teens but I haven't heard it in many years. It popped on my radio recently, and I marveled at the juxtaposition of a justly famous rock vocalist with almost symphony-like strings. It's still killer.
You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.
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