More MS news articles for July 2000

Disabled Activists Recall Bringing Traffic to a Stop for the Right to Move

Sunday, July 23, 2000

As rush-hour traffic piled up in downtown Salt Lake City, 30 men and women in wheelchairs rolled into the middle of Main Street.

There they stopped, blocking traffic at 100 South. It was 5 p.m. on a Thursday, September 1985.

Their goal: to stop the buses they could not board.

"I'd just moved here. I'm a farm boy from Boise. I'd really never gotten into that kind of confrontation before. It was scary, but very empowering," said Mark Smith, who was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident, and in 1985 was an activist with the private, nonprofit Disabled Rights Action Committee. He now works for Access Utah, an information and referral service for the Governor's Council on People With Disabilities.

The protest was a last-ditch effort to force a meeting with John Pingree, then general manager of the Utah Transit Authority, to demand accessibility to public transportation. It was a meeting they had been requesting for nearly a decade.

After the standoff dragged on for nearly 30 minutes, their request was granted.

"We had been fighting that battle for nine years. We just felt very strongly that it was a civil right to get on the bus," said Barbara Toomer of the Disability Rights Action Committee.

After the meeting, Pingree promised that 50 percent of all new buses ordered would be handicapped-accessible with working lifts.

UTA spokeswoman Coralie Alder says 90 percent of UTA buses are now wheelchair-accessible, with full compliance expected by the end of 2001. UTA also has curb-to-curb service through a separate bus system now called Flextrans.

"Flextrans enables me to do the normal things able-bodied people can do," says Bettina Johnson, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1992. She now chairs the Legislative Coalition for People with Disabilities and uses Flextrans to travel to the state Capitol, shop, and do volunteer work for the MS Society of Utah. Many changes have occurred in Utah and around the nation since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 10 years ago. A lot of them, like access to public transportation, were hard-fought victories in and out of the courtroom:

Some predicted an avalanche of lawsuits when ADA was passed, but most of the victories come from protests and informing businesses when they are in violation of the act.

"We have found the law to be more useful without going to court in certain arenas, like access," said Barbara Toomer of the nonprofit Disability Rights Action Committee.

Indeed, of the 122 ADA lawsuits filed in federal court in Utah since 1994, less than 10 involved issues of access to buildings and restrooms or deaf interpreters. While the majority of those were successful, of the remaining 108, which dealt with discrimination issues in the workforce, the results were mixed. About a third were rejected by judges or juries or dropped by frustrated plaintiffs.

The problem Toomer has with the law "is that the disabled have to do the enforcing, and in other areas that is not the case."

Some examples:

The E Center is accessible, as are Franklin Quest Field, the West Valley Recreation Center and most public buildings that have been built since 1992, as well as city halls along the Wasatch Front.

"But everything outside this area is really bad, including the libraries. There is a lot more to be done," Toomer said.

Disability advocates say that even though the ADA has been in effect for more than a decade, some business owners continue to plead ignorance when accused of violations.

"There are many small businesses in town, in this state, that steadfastly refuse to come into compliance with this law, especially in rural areas," said Steve Mikita, Utah's assistant attorney general who suffers from muscular dystrophy. "They should now be held accountable by the federal government to comply. It's time the federal government invests more money in enforcement. Ignorance is no excuse under any law."

But there is another side to the law, small-business owners say. "To put in a $20,000 elevator in a building that may get used a dozen times a year by disabled patrons is unrealistic," said Steven Rosenberg, owner of Liberty Heights Fresh Market and a small-business advocate. Rosenberg said denying access is unfair and wrong, but "we have to find some balance."