Dot Nary: Celebrating a nation with disability rights (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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Twenty years ago, my husband and I traveled to California to attend a wedding. After landing in San Francisco, we rented a car, drove north, and arrived at a chain motel where we had reserved a wheelchair-accessible room. 

We checked in and entered the room only to discover that I, as a wheelchair user, could get inside the door but no further due to the furniture arrangement and the narrow bathroom door. Although we’d reserved an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) room, the one we were assigned did not permit access beyond the entrance. 

I called the manager.

When I explained that we must have been given the wrong room, he replied, “An ADA room means that the door is wide enough to enter the room but nothing else.” 

… What?

I didn’t waste time advising the manager that the facility was noncompliant with a federal civil rights law that had passed 10 years earlier. We quickly loaded our luggage in the car, got a refund on our credit card, and relocated to another motel. There we found an ADA-compliant room that allowed me to take a shower and use the toilet. We were grateful to find a comfortable room that accommodated us and supported our right to travel just as nondisabled people do. 

As the 33rd anniversary of the signing of the ADA approaches on July 26, it’s time to reflect on the many ways that this civil rights law enhances the lives of Americans with disabilities. Most people are familiar with the blue signs with wheelchair symbols that mark accessible parking spaces. However, the scope of the ADA goes well beyond designated parking spaces.

Many would be surprised to learn of the rights that the ADA protects and of the far-reaching effect of this law on the lives of people of all disability types and life stages.

Some examples:

  • A child with muscular dystrophy using crutches can join his friends on a playground because of accessible features, as specified by the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG).
  • A blind adolescent can find information for a school assignment on the internet because ADA web accessibility standards ensure access for people with visual disabilities.
  • A teenager with epilepsy can bring their service dog (in this case, a specially trained “seizure dog”) into public places so that the dog can warn when a seizure will occur, because the ADA mandates access to public places for trained service animals. 
  • A man with an intellectual disability just out of high school can get a job and enter the workforce with the support of a job coach as an accommodation under the ADA. 
  • An expectant mother who is deaf can access childbirth classes because sign language interpreters are required in health care settings under the ADA. 
  • A middle-aged man undergoing cancer treatment can delay the start of his workday to accommodate his treatment schedule, as an ADA accommodation. 
  • An older adult with osteoporosis and hip problems reporting for her annual medical exam can get onto the lowered exam table more easily because the ADA sets standards for accessible medical equipment. 

While these examples demonstrate the value of the ADA to people with disabilities, the law also enhances the lives of nondisabled citizens by contributing to opportunities and accessible communities that facilitate participation for all. 

As the late U.S. Sen. Bob Dole stated as the ADA passed through congressional committees, “Under the ADA, we are all winners.” 

Is the ADA perfect? Not by any means, but no legislation is. It needs strengthening to achieve the promise of equal rights, as disability rights activists will attest. A major problem is that compliance with the law is typically voluntary or depends on citizens filing complaints, rather than more proactive enforcement. Additionally, the Disability Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice lacks adequate funding to respond to all complaints. 

Still, passage of the ADA has raised awareness that disabled people have rights as equal citizens and has created more accessible communities that can be enjoyed by people living with disabilities and those who will acquire them, whether through disease, traumatic events, or old age. 

Since it is estimated that 1 in 4 U.S. adults live with disabilities, raising awareness and increasing accessibility improves quality of life for so many. 

By the way, upon returning home from that California trip, I filed a federal complaint under the ADA against the motel with the inaccessible room. The owning franchise also owned a dozen other motels across the northern California coast. When the complaint was addressed by the Department of Justice, I learned that the franchise was forced to renovate all their facilities to comply with ADA accessibility standards, more than 10 years after the ADA was signed into law. 

At the time, I recall my former colleague, a disabled veterans’ advocate, commenting, ”That is the cost of doing business in a nation with civil rights laws.” 

Since equal rights are an essential component of democracy, the ADA, by protecting rights for the estimated 25% of our population who live with disabilities, contributes to the more “perfect union” that the framers of our Constitution envisioned. And that is worth celebrating!

For local organizations that provide information about the ADA, contact Independence Inc.,, or the Great Plains ADA Center,

About the writer

Dot Nary is a disability activist, retired KU researcher, and educator. She grew up on the east coast and still misses the ocean but delights in the beauty of the prairie. She loves living in Lawrence and works to make it a community that is equitable, accessible and welcoming to all. Read more of her columns for The Lawrence Times at this link.

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