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ADA’s mission remains ongoing

Despite law, barriers to accessibility still exist for many disabled Americans

Rick Hoover, a member of the Altoona Area School Board who uses a wheelchair, was planning to go out with his family recently and called ahead to a restaurant in Altoona to make sure the place was accessible.

Yes, someone from the restaurant said: No problem.

When the party arrived, they found three steps at the entrance — a small flight of stairs for someone who can walk, but a prohibitive barrier for Hoover.

That experience and others recounted by Hoover led participants in a recent forum at the Center for Independent Living of South Central Pennsylvania to the consensus that the mission of the Americans with Disabilities Act — which went into effect in 1993 so people with disabilities could fully engage with society — remains unfulfilled.

The forum also showed that it will take people like them — and their advocates — to push the rest of society to take notice and make the changes that are required by the law.

It requires “big mouths,” he said.

And it will take initiatives like a proposal from a participant to hold local businesses accountable for failing to provide accommodations — while giving credit to those who do well, the participants agreed.

The area is “not very handicapped-friendly,” said Hoover.

Obstacles are everywhere — restaurants that are hard to enter, stores with aisles too small, sidewalks that end in grass, he said.

And attitudes can be hostile.

Once, when forced by the ending of a sidewalk to take to the travel way for vehicles, the occupant of one yelled at him to get off the road, he said.

Even an agency that most would regard as enlightened required external impetus to begin mandated change in at least one area, according to Hoover, explaining that when he went to take his seat on the school board, “it was not set up for me.”

In addition, the school district’s Mansion Park lacks accessible restrooms, and when he brought up that deficiency, a fellow board member suggested obtaining a portable toilet.

“Are you kidding me?” he asked rhetorically.

Hoover hates to feel he’s getting something for nothing, and he hates to “put people out,” he said.

He also conceded that it’s easy for able-bodied people to overlook the obstacles: He didn’t recognize them himself until he began using his wheelchair nine years ago, he said.

And yet he doesn’t want to feel “like a second-class citizen,” he said.

Unfortunately, the lack of accommodations in this area have made him feel like one, he indicated.

He’s “sick and tired” of being unable to do things others take for granted, not only on his own account, but on behalf of others like him who have disabilities, he said.

He wants to do something about it.

“I want to be a voice,” he stated. “It’s time to come out of the shadows.”

The law requires “most businesses and facilities to provide reasonable access and accommodation for all disabled customers, clients and members of the public,” according to an article on the civilrights.findlaw website.

That applies to housing, employment, education and public accommodations, according to the article.

“(The law) prohibits the exclusion of people with disabilities from everyday activities, such as buying an item at the store, watching a movie in a theater, enjoying a meal at a local restaurant, exercising at the local gym or having the car serviced at a garage,” the article states.

The law applies to businesses of all sizes, provided they’re open to the public — although the requirements are less strict for facilities built or modified before 1993, the article states.

For such places, accommodations needn’t go beyond “readily achievable” removal of barriers, those that can be accomplished “without much difficulty or expense,” the article states.

If the removal of barriers is not readily achievable, “a business must take alternative steps to ensure that disabled persons can still reap the benefits of the business or building,” the article states.

Even as participants at the forum talked about the need to speak up, they wondered why it should be necessary.

What other group has found it incumbent upon itself to enforce civil rights that are being denied? he asked rhetorically.

Every oppressed group “from the dawn of time,” replied forum participant Corinda Ermin.

It took “people with big mouths” to get the ADA passed, and it’s taken people with big mouths to keep it from being forgotten, Ermin said.

“It should be baked in already,” Hoover said, while acknowledging that it isn’t.

Therefore, “it’s time for me to stop (complaining) here and start talking to the right people,” he said.

The forum moderators — who came to Altoona to gather information for Pennsylvania’s State Plan for Independent Living — spoke of $350,000 that will be available to help the accessibility cause.

Could that funding go toward correcting problems like steps at business entrances? Hoover asked.

It’s far too little to make a difference with such a widespread issue, the moderators said.

“What about tax incentives?” a CIL staffer asked.

“What about matching grants?” Hoover asked.

“What about a directory that lists businesses that are accessible — and ones that aren’t?” asked forum participant Eileen Ellis.

That could encourage the ones on the wrong side of that list to correct their problems, Ellis said.

“That’s awesome,” Hoover said. “Like reviews of restaurants on Yelp.”

Something like Angie’s List, said CIL Executive Director George Palmer.

Establishments with the highest scores could get five wheelchair symbols, in imitation of the symbols used by many rating websites, Palmer said.

It would help not only people with disabilities but those without, by making things easier, he said.

Communication with business owners and the general public on accessibility matters needs to be persistent, said Joan Weidlich, grandmother of a consumer with traumatic brain injury. “Over and over until it finally sinks in,” Weidlich said.

“I’m ready to come out of here with guns ablazing,” Hoover said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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