Declines in Accessibility 31 Years After the Americans with Disabilities Act

As I’ve largely stayed home during the pandemic, it’s been a constant worry: Will my communities be accessible when I return?

Even before the pandemic, I had daily struggles with accessibility barriers: missing or blocked ramps, broken elevators, inaccessible restrooms, and so forth.

I worried that, with most people with disabilities who are staying home due to the risks of the virus, our missing presence and hammering at accessibility problems would result in a tidal drift of decline.

A presence that presses for accessibility

In the before times, going out and about in my wheelchair often felt like a battle.

I had to anticipate what possible barriers I would face, how would I navigate them, how would I advocate to get them fixed so that all would be right for the next person with a disability to come along?

Of course, it’s not just the pandemic. It feels to be a wholesale cultural exclusion. If people with disabilities aren’t asking, aren’t pushing, aren’t making themselves known it feels like things automatically return to inaccessibility.

It’s like we build a ramp on the beach, then the ocean of ignorance and complacency washes it away.

Advocating for inclusion from a young age

I was the only wheelchair user (out of two) in my high school who was mainstreamed. This meant that I was in all the regular (and often advanced) courses with peers my age.

As a child, my parents had to advocate regularly for my inclusion in school, in field trips, in extracurriculars.

The result of their very hard work meant I went on field trips, joined chorus and band (plus marching band), participated in clubs, and was generally an active presence throughout my school community.

An experience I can never forget

My high school graduation was a big deal because, in the previous 2 years, I had 6 surgeries (both hips replaced, both knees replaced, and then scar tissue removal from the knees). I underwent months and months of rehabilitation and physical therapy.

Although I would still need a wheelchair day-to-day, the goal was to greatly decrease my pain and make it possible for me to attend college. I worked very hard towards the immediate goal of walking at my graduation.

Walking my high school graduation

For months leading up to graduation, I worked toward smaller goals. Eventually, I was standing and taking slow small steps.

I recently watched a video of some of my practice and I can see the immense concentration on my face as I stood and walked. It was a huge effort.

All the work paid off when, on that day, I walked down the red carpet in our school football stadium and accepted my diploma. The local newspapers covered the event and I still have the clippings of my triumphant smile.

To me, this was a huge moment. I remember the accolades and congratulations from my school peers and teachers that I had worked so hard, that accessibility had been made possible for my walk. I thought, "My community understands the importance of accessibility; who could ever forget this struggle?"

But, I was so wrong.

Memories are so fleeting

This summer I was visiting my hometown and looking for a pool to do my aquatic exercises. I learned that the pool that was added to my high school a few years after I had graduated had a lift that was broken for several years.

There was no access for people with disabilities. I was heartbroken. How could my community forget so easily?

It’s a reminder to me that accessibility is a constant battle. Like a shark, if we’re not moving forward, we’re moving backward.

Inaccessibility arrives at home

Back at my current home in DC, my husband and I went out for our 12th anniversary dinner. I picked out a special Italian spot that we had never visited together, but is one of the best in the city.

We get to the street and are looking for the restaurant when we see that construction on both sides has blocked the sidewalks and ramps.

I had to jaywalk my motorized wheelchair up across the street, avoiding traffic, and jump up a steep driveway to make it there.

On a night that we just wanted to enjoy a nice meal together, my husband and I had to calm down from our rage and disappointment.

Another accessibility battle was started. We took photos of the access barriers and, the next day, I filed a complaint with the city.

Help bring down barriers

What I really want to ask all my communities and the people in them is to look for themselves.

Identify those barriers and help to bring them down or repair them. Don’t make us do all the work all of the time.

Accessibility isn’t just for people with disabilities; it is for everyone. With that in mind, be a part of the solution so we don’t have to carry that heavy burden alone.

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