A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: ADA accessibility protections threatened by United States House Resolution 620

A recent Forbes quote of the day, by designer and entrepreneur Kendra Scott, declared, “Dream big and be disruptive. If you are doing the same thing as everyone else, you’ve already failed.”

Such was the impetus behind the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which became the law of the land in 1990. Before then, the civil rights of people with disabilities were routinely overlooked while the rest of us stood on the sidelines and watched. The result was barriers to employment and housing, forcing people with disabilities and their advocates to struggle with a system that ignored their needs and their rights.

Because the supporters of the original ADA legislation dared to “dream big,” we all benefit.  Everyday features like wheelchair ramps, accessible bathroom facilities, and curb cuts make it easier to cross the street on wheels, crutches, cane, or with two able-bodied feet.

Despite those and many other improvements due to ADA, violations are still evident and renovations in support of accessibility have been slow in coming. To address the problems, some have chosen the disruptive route with so-called “drive-by” lawsuits that make frivolous complaints and generate settlements that benefit trial lawyers more than people with disabilities.

In Murray, Ky., the route to ADA compliance has taken a positive approach with its program, Accessible Murray. Fueled by the energy and spirit of Carrissa Johnson, lead independent living specialist at the Center for Accessible Living (CAL), Accessible Murray is a public campaign to make Murray a more disability-friendly community. Rather than adopting a negative stance, the program seeks to identify facilities that comply with basic ADA requirements, and to provide special recognition for those that exceed the requirements.

Businesses have the opportunity to request to be surveyed for ADA compliance, and those that comply with ADA standards receive a sticker or sign saying “We welcome people with disabilities.”

Much like the first daffodils of the season, positive outcomes are springing up around town, and there are more to come.

Last year at this time, CAL-Murray was working on a project to create a disability-friendly addition to Murray’s Central Park. The plan provided for the purchase of accessible playground equipment and picnic tables, and the construction of ramps and pathways. Fully implemented, there will be swings that can be used by individuals in wheelchairs. The concrete sidewalk will be extended, and there will be panels with built-in tactile elements rich in providing sensory experiences. The current playground will be connected to the ADA playground so parents can watch children play at both.

“We’ve had several parents say they won’t take their children to the park because one child can’t play,” Ms. Johnson said in an interview one year ago. “The accessible playground will help all families so everybody can play,” she said. “It’s a win-win situation.”
 
Despite progress in Calloway County regarding accessibility, the U.S. House of Representatives recently approved the ADA Education and Reform Act with a vote of 225 to 192. If passed by the Senate as is, the law would damage accessibility protections that were laid out in the ADA almost thirty years ago.

Proposed changes in the law would require disabled individuals to provide written notice of their accessibility concerns in writing. Businesses would have up to 60 days to respond, in addition to another 120 days to begin requested improvements. Supposedly, the move is to counter frivolous lawsuits that some call “drive-by” ADA lawsuits, but disability advocates disagree.

Carrissa Johnson points out that businesses have had 25-plus years to make changes mandated by the existing law. “So we are doing a big push, hoping it won’t get passed” she declared.   

“With this and Medicaid cuts,” she continued, “it just makes it harder for us to get access.”

Although faced with the negative possibilities presented by H.R. 620, Carrissa Johnson and the Center of Accessible Living continue to take the high road and help local businesses understand what ADA requires them to do, and how it benefits the whole community.

For more information on H.R. 620, go to www.congress.gov. For additional information on the proposed law and how it would affect people with disabilities, log on to nfb.org. The website of the Center for Accessible Living is www.calky.org.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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