Maybe, Just Ask?

On July 26, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turned 30 years old. In social media, there was the expected congratulatory pomp and circumstance… a good part of it from people not necessarily affected by disability and inaccessibility on a daily basis.

Zigzag concrete ramp with yellow handrails

RAMP: DEPOSITPHOTOS/MANKUKUKU

Many comments from people living with disabilities were more muted. “Being at the table is not the same as being listened to,” said one Tweet. Attorney Gregory Mansfield Tweeted, “ADA is not a ‘baby law.’ It’s 30 years old. Compliance is long overdue.’

It’s especially ironic that the ADA had a notable birthday in the middle of a pandemic that has thrown a glaring spotlight on how people with disabilities are truly perceived. For example, healthcare professionals and policy makers have said or implied that people with disabilities could be moved to the bottom of a triage list if hospital beds, ventilators and medical care had to be rationed. The assumption is that people with disabilities innately experience a poorer quality of life than able-bodied peers and therefore shouldn’t be entitled to equal treatment in a public health emergency.

The pandemic has also revealed what infrastructure changes are possible when enough people need them. Suddenly, it became possible for millions of Americans to work from home or attend school online. This came as news to people with disabilities who’ve been told for years that those accommodations were too costly or complicated.

As for the loneliness and boredom experienced by millions of quarantining Americans, Numotion’s Karen Roy, an industry Ambassador and longtime wheelchair user, pointed out in a Mobility Management podcast (https://tinyurl.com/podcastkarenroy) that people with disabilities have been stuck at home for decades, even after the ADA, due to lack of wheelchair-accessible transportation and the inaccessibility of communities overall.

So while improvements have absolutely been made in the last 30 years, this latest ADA birthday is perhaps less a pat on the back and more an ongoing report card. And a logical way to improve — to make sure the 40th and 50th birthdays do see more reasons to celebrate — is to ask people with disabilities what they actually want and need.

Because the infantilization of people with disabilities results in many “improvements” that aren’t meaningful improvements at all. Three days after the ADA’s 30th birthday, mainstream media outlets such as CNN and BBC gushed over (yet another) stair-climbing wheelchair, the Scewo. Upon seeing the video, Carrie-Ann Lightley, a blogger and wheelchair user in the United Kingdom, Tweeted, “For goodness sake, we just want ramps.”

Innovation is terrific. Improvement is terrific. But maybe the first innovation that will lead to real improvement needs to happen in the minds of everyone who thinks they know what people with disabilities need.

Maybe, just ask?

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2020 issue of Mobility Management.

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.