The ADA at 30

Perspectives From Leaders and Readers

The ADA makes me grieve for my grandpa who died in 1977. He used a wheelchair all the years I knew him. Fast forward 13 years as the ADA arrived exactly when I needed it: It was signed when I was in the hospital for the first time due to MS. For my entire adult life, I’ve benefited from this great civil rights legislation. Because of it, it’s not often that I feel the bitter sting of exclusion. But when I do, I think of my Opa, who rarely got to sit beneath the open sky, had no adaptive technology and lived constantly with that bitter sting. My Opa makes me more grateful for the ADA and even hotter to fight those who are chiseling away at it.
John Mohler
Bolingbrook, Illinois


We are certainly better off with the ADA than without it, but a lot of the time the regulations are just something that looks good on paper. And, when it comes to practice, enforcement tends to end up being more work on our shoulders as disabled people.

To visually represent this, I riffed on M.C. Escher’s famous lithograph print, of staircases that go nowhere (and ultimately are useless). I want to represent something that is technically there, but not really practical, much like Escher’s House of Stairs. I was thinking of extremely steep ramps that go into each other, interspersed with stairs, and other visual cues of halfway ADA-accessible situations — too-high grab bars, etc. I don’t want it to be a representation of complete uselessness because that’s not at all what I think of the ADA; I just want to show the complication and nuance that come along with it that I think are important to reflect on.
Amanda Russel
Portland, Oregon

I have been a T8-9 para since 1975 and believe me the changes have been like night and day. Before the ADA, going to a washroom in a large establishment, like a shopping mall, was a challenge and small restaurants were a joke. Being able to get on a bus or public train was a dream. Curb cuts and public buildings with doors I could go through were luxuries. While there still needs to be more done, life’s much easier since the ADA was passed.
Bruce Hagan
Huntley, Illinois

Craig BradburnI am a C6 quadriplegic, and I use a power chair. My accident was in 1994, so I don’t know how life for disabled people was before the ADA. It might have been a lot worse. I just know from my experience that the ADA should have been made stronger and fully enforced by now. It is the only civil rights legislation that I know of that after 30 years is still not fully enacted and enforced.

My wife and I were in a financial bind, and we were going to lose our fully-modified wheelchair-livable home. There are no apartment complexes in my city that have wheelchair-livable apartments. Not even the ones where you have to be old or disabled. Shouldn’t these things be covered under the ADA?

When the Arby’s in town was remodeled, they completely put in a new sidewalk that does not have curb cuts! If the ADA had teeth and was enforceable, this would not happen. There have been several other buildings in town with new owners. They all remodeled, but have no ramps to get into their stores. The ones I have gone to will put up a portable ramp. This would have been perfectly acceptable when the ADA was just passed, but 30 years later, they should put in a permanent ramp.

I’m not all negative about the ADA. It made a big difference for people with disabilities — it just fell way short of what it could have been.
Craig A. Bradburn
Muncie, Indiana

Twenty-four years ago, as I was approaching the start of kindergarten, my family learned I couldn’t go to the elementary school nearest my home because it had two levels and no elevator, and I can’t climb stairs. Today, our local paper published an article with the headline “Uplifting Progress” because the school I couldn’t go to all those years ago is just now getting around to installing an elevator to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Can I appreciate progress? Of course. But July 26 is the 30th anniversary of the passage of the ADA. The school already had five years to comply by the time I came along, but it took another two decades to pass a budget including funding for an elevator (that happened in 2015) and still another five years after that to begin installing it. It took 30 years to fix something they knew was a problem … or maybe they didn’t think it was a problem at all.
Emily Ladau
Editor, Rooted In Rights

In 1995, when I was walking on crutches (from polio in 1945), and working for a community college, I fell on the job. The job non-renewed my contract, stating they thought I’d fall again, even though I used a wheelchair from the accident. I sued, and in the course of the lawsuit, there was a ruling from the Supreme Court that found you could not sue a state agency for an ADA violation [Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett, 2001]. We continued with the lawsuit in the state court system and I won, but it took 10 long years to get to that win.

The change in the ADA really crippled my case, and my win left me exhausted. The defense made every attempt to malign me and engaged in endless delays. The college was compelled to offer me another position, but with my reputation ruined where all this had taken place, I had no intention of returning to accept the position.
Sue Foster-Johnson
Pine Mountain, Georgia

Richard SalsgiverUpon retiring in 2013, I moved with my partner from California to Pennsylvania and then Florida. I discovered in this process that the level of ADA enforcement is directly related to the values held about disability independence by a community. In California, I had the expectation of 80% wheelchair accessibility. I never had to think much about going to restaurants, bars, shows, stores, etc. My assumption was that they would be accessible. If I discovered a rare facility that was not, I had not only California law and ADA, but the community’s value of disability independence working with me to rectify an intolerable situation.

Very soon in Pennsylvania, I discovered that you can maybe expect 40% accessibility and no sense of accountability. Not only are places inaccessible to wheelchair users, but also the folks who run them have no clue that they should be. For example, Pam and I wished to go to a bookstore coffeehouse in a little village in Eastern Pennsylvania. Having discovered the “40% rule” of Pennsylvania, I called ahead and asked if their facility was wheelchair accessible. The young woman on the phone said it was, and that there were only six steps up the front. I replied that the ramp must be in the back. “No,” she said. “There are 12 steps in the back.” After talking with her for literally half an hour, I finally got her to concede that the place was not wheelchair accessible. Behind her lack of awareness was the value that wheelchair users should not be independent but always come with a “helper.” Florida is better, but not by much.

Without the political/legal forge that characterizes the independence movement that occurred in California, the Americans with Disabilities Act will not be enforced uniformly.
Richard O. Salsgiver
Professor Emeritus,
California State University, Fresno

ADA is a joke!

First, the federal government exempted itself from having to follow many ADA guidelines. I have experienced so many violations in VA hospitals, VA centers and military hospitals, and there is nothing to do since federal agencies and federal properties are exempt from the ADA.

Secondly, in the civilian world as well, in both public and private businesses, very few places are actually wheelchair accessible. The vast majority of places and businesses think they are ADA compliant by putting up a small blue sticker with a wheelchair on it on their window, but they are not at all ADA compliant!

Finally, reserved accessible parking spots are a total joke too. There is so much abuse! Most of the time, I don’t find any disabled parking spots because they are all taken either by people illegally parked without any placard (usually young people who have no respect for any laws) or by people who fake it and have no mobility disabilities whatsoever and can walk and run without any assistance. I personally don’t care to park near an entrance, but I need the extra space to get in and out of my vehicle and to operate my wheelchair lift. They might as well just eliminate these reserved spots since they are never available for genuine disabled people!
Bernard Noel
Honolulu, Hawaii

I am 76 years old and have been a wheelchair user for nine years. I had no idea how difficult it was to go anywhere in a wheelchair and how many exceptions there were in the ADA.

Six years ago, I moved to Wilmington, Delaware. When I couldn’t get into several new retail locations, I was told that they didn’t own the buildings. I then contacted the building code official, and I was told that the design of the entrances was permitted under ADA rules. When I complained to my bank that I couldn’t handle their front doors, their solution was to put an unmarked bell on the building. I ring the bell and someone comes to open the door.

I find the ADA to be very limiting.
George Oppenheier
Wilmington, Delaware

I am grateful every day for the ADA and its legal framework. However, I think some aspects of its impact are lagging and long overdue. I am constantly faced with doctors’ offices, stores and schools that are entirely inaccessible. Recently, I have noticed ads for teaching positions and desk jobs, such as grant writer, that state candidates must be able to lift 20 pounds. Why? To keep out qualified candidates who have mobility impairments that have no impact on these jobs? That is a civil rights violation, but when I reached out about this to the ADA National Network, their response was that employers are allowed to post any restrictions they want. I find this very alarming.
L. Maffei
Cedarhurst, New York


Over the last 20 years of being in a wheelchair, I’ve consistently wished that the interpretation of the ADA was more human-centered. I wanted to focus on portraying the human resilience that is behind every letter of the law. This is the first piece of work I’ve done with a disability theme. Creating it makes me want to do more in the future and flush out my rather nuanced message.
Emily McQueen
Portland, Oregon