Shelley Hawkins, longtime disability awareness trainer at Solid Ground Transportation, tells me she’s going to teach me something. She asks me to hold my arm out. In order to assist her from her chair to her walker, I loosely extend my arm. She straightens my arm, tells me to widen my stance. She hoists herself up, using my weight rather than my strength. As both a trainer and user of the ACCESS van service, Shelley has a comprehensive understanding of what people living with disabilities require. She instructs her drivers to never lift passengers. They can lift themselves with a little leverage.
For the past 25 years, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has provided that leverage for disabled people to pursue autonomous lives. The act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodations, and governmental activities. Shelley reminds me that the ADA equal access provisions mean nothing if they are not implemented effectively. She’s devoted the last 15 years to train ACCESS drivers on disability awareness, ADA compliance, and passenger assistance.
Tomorrow, July 22, Disability Rights Washington will hold a 25th anniversary rally at Westlake Park to celebrate the meaningful freedom the legislation has afforded the disabled population. Shelley recalls how “30 years ago, no one was even talking about this. People with disabilities stayed home.” Before ADA, social agencies provided accommodating transportation services only to people living below a certain income threshold. The ADA extended eligibility for those free services to anyone who could no longer take a fixed route due to physical or cognitive impairments.
Shelley trains ACCESS drivers – a service that provides curb-to-curb transportation – because she realizes that transportation is the crucial element of autonomous living. Without services such as ACCESS provided by the ADA, people with disabilities face daily frustrations – unable to get to the grocery store, or perform the essential errands that others take for granted. Even where ADA ideals fall short in practice, Shelley appreciates when “[she] knows they tried to fix it. That matters.” We should celebrate the signing of the ADA because it represents a step in the right direction, the result of people advocating for themselves.
Additionally, I hope the 25th anniversary of ADA opens a conversation about how disability awareness can be improved. In Shelley’s eyes, the ultimate goal is to eliminate obstacles that demand outside assistance. She shared an anecdote from her trip to Germany: “You can’t put an elevator in a castle, but the Germans will pick you up and carry you to the top of the castle if that’s what you want to do.” Although the final outcome appears the same, anyone would prefer the independence of the elevator.
People with disabilities encounter a host of accessibility limitations that fall through the cracks of the ADA. Oftentimes sidewalks will have curb cuts on one side that don’t match the curb cut on the other side. A flimsy lift rather than a durable elevator; small doors on the accessible side of the building; buttons on the wrong side of the door. These accommodations are compliant with ADA regulations, but in an attempt to incur only minimum costs, companies and public utilities fall short of a minimum humanity. They force people to seek assistance where they could otherwise be independent. Shelley expressed some dismay that “you try to go in and change it; they misinterpret what the disabled populations [are] asking for, and change it in a way they didn’t expect. That’s not helping.” Helping is listening.
Much to the credit of ADA legislation, we’ve made great progress in disability awareness the past few decades. People living with disabilities know they can transport to their jobs affordably. They know they can access the restrooms at their jobs. They can get drinks with friends after work. That’s worth celebrating.
Moving forward, a level of personal thoughtfulness should transcend the bare minimum regulations of the ADA in both accessibility design and disability services. More so, programs should be aware that the less external assistance required the better. Shelley tells her drivers that passengers don’t want them breaking their backs trying to assist them. Straighten your arm, widen your stance – provide leverage.