July 25, 2000
BY BY BRENDA WARNER ROTZOLL STAFF REPORTER
Curb cuts, ramps, braille elevator signs, accessible housing and jobs for the disabled--they've all come about in quantity because of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The law requiring reasonable accommodation to provide access to telecommunications, transportation, public accommodations, public service and jobs for people with disabilities took effect July 26, 1990.
A decade later, the visible signs of accessibility are great, spokesmen for the disabled say. But what's most important is that ADA has changed the nation's attitude about what people with any sort of disability can and should be able to do.
"I think the biggest impact the ADA has had is to increase public awareness of the fact people with disabilities want to participate fully in society," said Larry Gorski, the head the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities.
"It's the change in attitude--making it the right thing to do, hiring people based on their qualifications, not on their disability," agreed Jim Kesteloot, head of the Chicago Lighthouse and himself legally blind since birth.
"ADA has really opened the door for adults and children with disabilities in so many ways, from individual living to health care to education to employment to recreation," said James E. Williams, president of the Easter Seal Society. The society on Wednesday will honor Chicago for its 10-year commitment to becoming the nation's most accessible city.
With his severely limited vision, Kesteloot literally can see some of the changes, such as larger, higher-contrast signs in public places. He can see them on his computer, too.
"The computer companies would not have come up with speech systems or large type if it wasn't for ADA," Kesteloot said.
Gorski said even before ADA, Chicago had been putting in curb cuts. Ten years after ADA, the city has 100,000 curb cuts that make it possible for people in wheelchairs or on crutches to use sidewalks.
But some curb cuts are dangerous, said Gloria Nichols of Jefferson Park, who gets around in a motorized wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis.
"There are some really nasty curb cuts on Michigan Avenue. Sometimes there is a little drop-off between the curb cut and the pavement that can unseat me," she said.
In the decades before ADA, "Chicago was the place where you had to sue" to get wheelchair lifts on buses, disabled children into mainstream classes, ramps and other access aids into public buildings, Gorski said. He was one of the activists taking the city to court.
Marca Bristo is a presidential appointee to the National Council on Disability--which she termed "the birthplace of ADA"--and president of Access Living, a Chicago center providing self-help services and advocating for social change on behalf of the disabled.
"For people who acquire disabilities in the workplace, the law has had a positive effect. It's had less of an impact on people who aren't in the workplace and want to get there and face discrimination in gaining that access," Bristo said. "The ADA has enabled us to have a legal tool, which most disabled people don't use as a legal tool. They use it as leverage."
One effect that surprised some employers was the growing number of complaints filed by people with bad backs--20,000 in the past decade, or 15 percent of total complaints.
"Here are people who want to continue to work and often are requesting accommodation. What would we have them do, go on public assistance?" Bristo said.
Despite the ADA's successes, more work is needed, advocates say.
"There is a lot more that needs to be done by the government, the private sector and the disabled community itself in terms of getting the message out," Bristo said. "The subject we're talking about is civil rights, and having our civil rights meaningfully enforced so the promise of equality of opportunity, independence and economic sufficiency is fulfilled."
It hasn't been fulfilled yet for Robin Yokum of Wheaton. She was working in restaurant manager jobs until she gradually became deaf.
"A lot of people don't know I've lost my hearing because I can speak well," she said. She is learning lip-reading and said it is frustrating when she asks someone to repeat something, and they just say, "Skip it."
Yokum is volunteering at the DuPage Center of Independent Living until she can find a job where her hearing problem will be accommodated.
Larry Williams, who is blind, invented the bell ball for basketball, inserting sleigh bells into the balls so a blind person could track their movement by sound.
"I think it's the responsibility of people with disabilities to create material that will enlighten people to our skills, talents and abilities," Williams said. He has a master's degree in business, sells management consulting services and gets around on buses and the L.
The CTA has 1,870 buses, or 71 percent of its fleet, that are wheelchair-accessible. The portion is expected to be 96 percent in three years. Fifty-one of the 144 L and subway stations have elevators or ramps.
Bristo, who uses a wheelchair, said elevators often are out of service and bus drivers frequently won't stop for wheelchair users.
"We got through the hard part--the cost. Now we need to train drivers to stop and deploy the lifts," she said.