The ADA at 30

The ADA is 30 — that statement conjures thoughts profound and emotional. The anniversary of the groundbreaking federal civil rights legislation is reason for celebration because humankind is better when we remove barriers that prevent people from living their lives to the fullest.

But those barriers didn’t bring themselves down. That took sustained advocacy by many dedicated people with disabilities. We reached out to a group of them and asked them to share their thoughts and advocacy accomplishments.

David Capozzi

Executive Director, U.S. Access Board

David Capozzi has been the executive director of the U.S. Access Board since 2008 and a staff member since 1992. “I can remember before the ADA was passed,” says the T7 para. “In the early ’80s, you would have to call movie theaters, restaurants, any place, to see if it was accessible. Now I assume it’s accessible.”

The ADA’s effect on public transportation, especially on buses, is one of the biggest successes of the ADA. In 1989, the year before the ADA was passed, 40% of fixed route buses were accessible. “Now, 100% of fixed-route buses are accessible, and generally they are low-floor buses with ramps, so there isn’t a cumbersome lift to break.” he says. “You don’t have to wait for every other bus to come along and hope the lift isn’t broken.”

In addition to transportation being improved, Capozzi says recreation opportunities have increased infinitely, thanks to the ADA. “Before the ADA, playgrounds were not accessible for adults or children with disabilities. In the 1990s, we wrote regulations, and now you see more poured-in-place rubber surfaces, and the equipment is more accessible than it was before,” he says. Also, now there are more beach access routes, beach chairs, and accessible stadiums and arenas. “Before the ADA, you were lucky to have a stadium where you could find a wheelchair accessible seat at all. Now, we address sightline over standing spectators, and accessible seating dispersed throughout the facility — because of the ADA.”

Rosemary Ciotti

Disability Health Care Consultant

Rosemary CiottiTwenty-five years ago, nurse practitioner Rosemary Ciotti was pregnant with her second child when an inflammatory disease similar to MS gave her stroke-like symptoms and ultimately quadriplegia-like loss of limb use. “We moved from a big house into a condo in Arlington, Virginia — moving to the land of ADA activists,” says Ciotti, who uses both a manual and power chair for mobility. “I had a baby on my lap, my speech was still slurred, and I was getting stuck in elevators. These activists got me off the couch and into activism. They taught me that I had rights, that I didn’t have to miss four elevators while nondisabled people crammed ahead of me.”

Since then Ciotti has campaigned for everything from automatic door openers at medical centers to more roll-in showers in public and private sector multifamily buildings. Housing advocacy is tough because there is no one strong law that covers all aspects of renting and home ownership: The ADA covers public areas in developments, the Fair Housing Act outlaws discriminating against people with disabilities and also requires a certain amount of accessibility in multi-family homes, and Sect. 504 of the Rehab Act requires a certain percentage of public housing units to be accessible.

When Ciotti first became interested in increasing accessibility in public housing high rises, she learned to combine these laws. She served for 10 years on the Arlington County Planning Commission and was successful in securing 75 roll-in showers in units in new buildings. Her goal is to increase the federally-mandated number of accessible showers from 2% percent to 4% and then ultimately 10%.

“A more accessible bathroom allows people to age in place, and gives them dignity and a clean shower — whether they are a veteran returning home with a major SCI injury or a person who simply ripped up their knee on a ski trip,” she says. “We have the ADA, but your community is only as accessible as you insist it will be.”

Kelley SimoneauxKelley Simoneaux

Founder, Spinal Cord Injury Law Firm

Kelley Simoneaux, a T12 para, lives in Washington, D.C., where she was denied a ride by an Uber driver. “That catapulted me into starting my own law firm,” says Simoneaux, who sued the rideshare company.

She is concerned that the gig economy, which was not in existence when the ADA was adopted, is going to erase many gains made under the ADA, because app-based companies aggressively claim they are exempt from it. “Like micromobility — the sidewalks are littered with scooters that create barriers,” she says. “And Airbnb is largely inaccessible. We are going to have to look at regulations that speak to how people with disabilities fit into the tech-based world. We all need to commit during the next 30 years to making sure technology improves the lives of people and is not a barrier.”

Billy Altom

Executive Director, Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living

Billy AltomEffective advocacy is different once you get outside the city, says Billy Altom, a T1 para based in Little Rock, Arkansas.

“There is a huge difference in how you enforce the ADA in rural areas versus urban,” says Altom. “In an urban setting, if I go to a store and it’s not accessible, I can file a complaint, or I can go 10 blocks down the street and get what I need at a place that’s accessible. If I’m in rural America and I need to buy pig feed and there’s only one place in the county to buy that and it’s not accessible — I may need to build a relationship with the owner and negotiate a way of making things accessible.”

Altom says he never goes to explain accessibility modifications to a business owner without a copy of the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines in hand. “I want to work with the person. Maybe they always wanted to build a new door, and now they can understand how to make it compliant, and maybe they can even use it as a tax write-off,” he says. “My mindset is to give the person the tools to help them, to let them make modifications that are cost-effective, so they see me and the ADAAG as an asset.”

Victor Calise

Commissioner, New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities

Victor Calise, a para, has served under two administrations as the Commissioner for the New York Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. “As we approach the 30th anniversary of the signing of the ADA, I am proud that we have made great strides to increase accessibility and to prioritize disability rights in the City’s policy agenda,” he says. Among his office’s accomplishments are:

Victor Calise   • A city building code that goes above and beyond the mandates set forth in the ADA.

   • The Taxi and Limousine Commission has steadily increased the number of wheelchair accessible taxis. Also, it passed regulations to mandate wheelchair accessibility in all for-hire vehicle bases, including ride-hailing app companies.

   • An increase in accessible and affordable housing units by ensuring that a percentage of units in new affordable housing developments are set aside for people with disabilities. All units in new construction are adaptable, should a disabled tenant require reasonable accommodations.

   • The NYC: ATWORK initiative that connects a talent pool of PWD to living-wage jobs and internships that meet their qualifications.

Heidi Johnson-Wright

ADA Compliance Professional

Heidi Johnson-Wright has used a power wheelchair for mobility for 35 years. She graduated from law school and got married — to this writer — all before the ADA was enacted.

“One of the big challenges is getting people to understand that the ADA is a civil rights law and not a building code. While people are a lot more informed today, there are still those who hear ‘ADA’ and think it consists solely of curb ramps and restroom stalls,” she says. “So, it’s my job to explain how the ADA applies to access to programs and services. For the most part, people want to do the right thing. They sometimes feel awkward around people with disabilities and are looking for guidance.”

Johnson-Wright, who has rheumatoid arthritis, started her first job out of law school when the ADA was brand new. She made a simple written request for a toilet seat riser and door openers for the restroom and the building’s main entrance. Weeks went by with no action, and her state agency employer seemed to have zero understanding of the ADA. That led Johnson-Wright to file a state civil rights complaint.

“When my boss found out, he flipped out and screamed at me,” she recalls. “Ultimately, I got the toilet seat riser, and a security guard was assigned to help me with the building entrance. I never got a door opener for the restroom. Such behavior would be inconceivable in today’s climate.”

Now with 30 years under the ADA, Johnson-Wright says people with disabilities know their rights and are asserting them. “I’m happy to see young folks speaking freely about disability life without shame, sharing info on social media. That’s what we need to do: to keep telling our stories. For too long, others have told our stories for us, stories that reduced our civil rights to dollars and cents,” she says. “Don’t apologize for being disabled. Don’t hide in the shadows. We need more than just the ADA. We need to keep pushing the cultural shift forward.”