Last Spring, Bryan and I went to an Auburn University alumni event at the Davidson Center which was built in 2008 to house the Saturn V at the US Space and Rocket Center and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s an amazing place to be – one of my favorites. Imagine our frustration when we couldn’t get in the building. Sure there’s an elevator once you get inside, but someone had built a fence around the property that required walking down a flight of stairs. Friends from college arrived in time to carry Bryan and then his scooter down the steps.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t really want my friends carrying me. Know what I mean? I’d be worried they’d hurt their backs or get a hernia or break out in a sweat or go home and say, Good gosh that woman weighs a lot. Bryan was a good sport.
Back in 1990, two things happened that raised my awareness of people with disabilities. I became friends with a guy named Robert who had been paralyzed in an accident – and – President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. Robert was really good looking and charismatic – he always had pretty girls hanging on him and a big group of guys laughing at his jokes and stories. He made it all look easy with his modified BMW and a wheelchair ramp into his house which was just off campus and functioned as party central.
By 1993, I was back living in Europe and then spent the next decade traveling all over the world for work and for fun. As I trod down cobblestone streets and schlepped luggage up staircases, I would think about Robert. He had loved to travel and wrote articles for the newspaper reminiscing about his adventures around the world as a Navy SEAL. I felt sad that most of the experiences I was having and the amazing places I was seeing were inaccessible to him.
Fast forward to 2010: My husband’s doctor said the words “secondary progressive MS” and Bryan went from a walking stick to a power scooter in less than a year. I had proudly noted 20 years of progress and change here in the US: wheelchair ramps, accessible restrooms and even [albeit bewilderingly] braille signs on drive-thru ATMs!
Friends, I was so naive.
The ADA is great – it’s better than nothing and it’s a start – but it’s vague and there are loopholes and even the ADA office will tell you it’s enforced via legal complaints and lawsuits that are costly to pursue and difficult to substantiate. Also, the ADA tries to cover everyone – so the person with cancer can’t be fired and the person who is deaf will have an accessible phone in their hotel. It’s the motherload – like restaurants that try to make everything and end up being good at nothing.
When I contacted the US Space and Rocket Center about our experience, they were great. I was invited to consult on needed changes and happily obliged. The changes would be inexpensive… How about handicap parking near the handicap entrance? How about unlocking the gate that blocks the handicap entrance? None of it was hard – but it was so weird that I was the consulting party. Hello!?!? My credentials include a college buddy and a husband who use wheelchairs. And that’s my point: Everyone seems to be winging it and you would be amazed how inaccessible most places are.
On the up side, people are so kind. Truly. The ADA is important, but the thing that we most need to make accessible – and cannot legislate – is our hearts. I think we’re headed in the right direction.
Maybe now Elvis can leave the building…