ADA Turns 20

by | Jul 25, 2010 | Disability Awareness, Politics | 0 comments

On July 26, 2010, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) will turn 20 years old.

The ADA was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush on July 26, 1990 and was largely hailed as the civil rights bill for the disabled. It was to bring equal rights and access to Americans with disabilities who before hand were discriminated in the work place as well as in general public. Through the ADA, restaurants, shops, hotels and other public establishments were to improve accessibility by conforming to strict guidelines concerning doorways, ramps and restroom access. For the most part, this has been a success. Only older establishments that were “grandfathered in” appear to be exempt from these guidelines.

About five years ago, I was in a local southside bar called Zydeco. I was invited by a local DJ I had befriended to celebrate the three-year anniversary of a new radio station. I called Zydeco ahead of time to make sure their establishment was accessible. I was told there were three stories, the second of which was just an outside balcony. The band playing there that night would be on the third floor. I explained my situation that I used a powered wheelchair and wanted to know if they would be able to accommodate me. They said, sure… come on down.

It didn’t take long after getting there to realize there were no ramps or elevators leading to the second floor (balcony) for the third floor. I spoke to the management and specifically mentioned the ADA. They said they were “grandfathered in” and that the ADA did not apply to them.

The radio station throwing the party was very disappointed and changed their entire plans, having their celebration on the first floor, without a band. I’m not sure how many other establishments are considered “grandfathered in”, but this was one occasion I was very disappointed.

One area of accessibility that has improved a great deal is wheelchair seating areas at concert venues. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, there was virtually no handicap seating at the Oak Mountain Amphitheater. Wheelchairs had to sit in the lawn area in the very back. In the late 90s, the lawn area was eliminated and replaced by high standing bleacher seating. A small, gated wheelchair section was added just in front of what was the lawn area, offering better access, but still did not allow the height necessary for the wheelchair visitors to see over the heads of the rows in front.

This has significantly improved in the last five years as the amphitheater (now the Verizon Wireless Music Center) has expanded their wheelchair section to the entire width of the amphitheater. It’s still in the last row of the second section, about two thirds of the way back from the stage, but it’s higher now and there is no problem having a clear view of the stage.

The best venue I have found in town to accommodate wheelchairs is The Alabama Theater. Although their wheelchair section is off to the side, they have positioned it on the fourth row. I have had the pleasure of seeing Chicago perform at this venue some years back, and being that close to the performers was a first for this 38-year-old.

The Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center Arena has been a disappointment for many years. Since its opening in 1976, wheelchair seating for the arena has always been on the very back row, with no public ramps or elevators accessible to the floor level. This has been extremely frustrating considering this is the largest indoor venue in northern Alabama. With a seating capacity of 19,000, the BJCC Arena is the indoor venue of choice for everything from concerts and ice skating, to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Only recently, have they established a new wheelchair section closer to the floor level on one side of the arena. While this is certainly an improvement, it only accommodates a small number of wheelchairs, AND it is a part of their “Arena Club”, which requires a special membership for access.

Although concert venues have come a long way since 1990, I still see room for much improvement.

Another challenge that the ADA is undertaking, is accessible transportation. The Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA) now has an ADA compliant service called the Paratransit (VIP) Service. Its reliability is debatable at best, and its service area is very limited in rural areas. AL-DAN (Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Network) has taken great strides in addressing transportation issues in Alabama. Although the ADA has done a lot, much work is needed to improve the ease and ability for our blind and mobility impaired citizens to freely travel.

One thing that has majorly improved is curbside ramps. Before 1990, I can remember when going downtown, I would have to park on the block of the building was to access because there were no ramps on the curbs allowing for crossing the street. Now, there is a ramp on every street corner and almost all public establishments have ramps.

Public restrooms have also come a long way, having wider stalls and hand rails for assistance and safety.

Overall, we see more people with disabilities in the workplace, and they are starting to be accepted more in society. The ADA has paved the way, but it’s up to the disability community to build upon that foundation. We live in a time where there are great technologies that can bridge that gap between disabled and abled. What remains are the people to make it all happen.

On July 26, 2010, advocates from across the state of Alabama will come together for a Disability Summit to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the ADA, assistive technology exhibits, elect at-large Advisory Board members, and set priorities. This event will take place at the Sheraton Civic Center in Birmingham from 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

With determination, education, and God’s grace, we will continue to fulfill the goals and dreams set forth by the ADA.

-Jerry Farris

Jerry Farris

Jerry Farris is an entrepreneur, struggling with a 45 year progression of Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type II. He is a blogger and owner of Jerry's Cool Stuff. He was honored in 2010 by the Alabama Rehabilitation Association with the J Merrill Taylor Achievement Award, and by the Muscular Dystrophy Association as a national contender for the Robert Ross MDA Personal Achievement Award.

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