Why the Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act Felt Bittersweet

A few weeks ago, many disability rights advocates celebrated the 27th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed this landmark legislation into law.

I wanted to be in a celebratory mood on the anniversary of the ADA. Yet, as I suddenly remembered how far people with disabilities still need to come before they have the same opportunities as able-bodied people like me, the anniversary felt a little bittersweet.

Now, don’t get me wrong—in spite of the statement I just said, I think that the ADA is arguably the most significant piece of civil rights legislation in the last fifty years (the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965). It is a piece of legislation that improves the lives of millions of Americans, and it is a piece of legislation which, in many cases, enables disabled people to have access to the same opportunities that their able-bodied counterparts have.

While the legislation has improved the lives of millions, it still has a way to go to give disabled people the same access as able-bodied people.

For example, while transit access has improved for people with disabilities, they don’t have access equal to their able-bodied counterparts. One need not look further than the fact that subway systems in New York, Chicago, and Boston, for example, do not have universal wheelchair access (though New York’s situation is much worse than that of Boston or Chicago).

Furthermore, while many buildings now have ADA access, the quality of that access (in the form of things like elevators and ramps) can widely vary. Sometimes the ADA access is top-notch, and sometimes the access leaves something to be desired (everyone can probably think of examples of unreliable elevators).

There is the potential for people with disabilities in many cases to have opportunities similar to able-bodied people like me. But in many areas, that potential hasn’t been fully realized, even though the ADA was passed over a quarter century ago. And there is a certain disappointment, a certain bittersweetness, that I feel as a result of this potential that hasn’t been fully realized.

But why should you all, as readers, care about my being bittersweet about the anniversary of the ADA, let alone one of the reasons I feel bittersweet? I think all of you should care because my bittersweetness is a reminder for all of us that the advancement of disabled persons’ rights did not end with the ADA. Instead, the uneven progress in accessibility for people with disabilities is a reminder that there is still much to advocate for.

How Crosswalks are Still Ableist, Even With Disability Laws

For able-bodied people, going through a crosswalk is pretty simple: we get to the street, we wait to have the right-of-way, and then we cross.

For people who are not able-bodied, it is not necessarily that simple. Not only that, but there are actually a number of ways that crosswalk areas are problematic to people who are not able-bodied, and are therefore ableist:

  1. Some crosswalks don’t have long enough light cycles for the people crossing. There have been numerous times where even I, an able-bodied 24-year-old, struggled to cross a street before I lost the right-of-way. If even I struggle with crossing by the time I lose the right-of-way, the problem is even worse for people who are not swift on their feet.
  2. Some crosswalks don’t have any noise cues for people who are blind. Honestly, I’ve always asked myself how a blind person can possibly cross a street without being run over by a car. If this video is any indication, it is difficult at best to cross the street without sound cues. Yes, blind people often seem to rely on sound cues from cars on the street, but many crosswalks (including crosswalks in New York City) lack sound devices to inform blind people on when it is or is not safe to cross the street.
  3. Many crosswalks seem to have the pedestrian right-of-way mostly (or only) activated when a button is pushed to ask for a walk sign. However, from amputated arms to simply an old person struggling to get to that button the person needs to push, there are various reasons why the pedestrian right-of-way activation button is not easily accessible for many individuals.
  4. In many snowy areas, snow is often pushed to the side, to the curb and to…the crosswalks. And sadly, such snow is often not removed from these crosswalk areas. The result is that many street crossings are barely accessible to even able-bodied people like me, let alone those who are not able-bodied.

While crosswalks have improved in some ways—most notably an increasing number of sound cues for crosswalks so that blind people can cross safely, as well as ramps that allow people with wheelchairs to get from the walkway to the street and back to the walkway again—we should not settle for these improvements alone. We should not settle for the aforementioned improvements alone because there are still several ways that crosswalks are not safe for many to cross. Hopefully, the appropriate changes can be made, so that crosswalks are accessible to more than the able-bodied.

Forced Intimacy: An Ableist Norm

This week, I decided to share a post from Leaving Evidence on something called forced intimacy, a term used by blogger and activist Mia Mingus to describe “the common, daily experience of disabled people being expected to share personal parts of ourselves to survive in an ableist world.” It was especially interesting to read about how even basic things, like pushing a wheelchair, are often done without the author’s consent or without the consent of disabled people in general. I hope that people reading Mingus’s post can learn how to avoid imposing this forced intimacy upon people with disabilities, no matter how well-intentioned we are.

“Forced Intimacy” is a term I have been using for years to refer to the common, daily experience of disabled people being expected to share personal parts of ourselves to survive in an ableist world. This often takes the form of being expected to share (very) personal information with able bodied people to get basic […]

via Forced Intimacy: An Ableist Norm — Leaving Evidence

The Ableism of Internet Map Directions

For most of us, it is easy to get transit directions to get from Point A to Point B. You just go onto Google Maps (or maybe Bing or Yahoo Maps), type your starting point, type your destination point, and get directions from there. It seems simple enough.

Simple enough for able-bodied people.

If you are wheelchair-bound, or told by your doctor or your own body to try avoiding stairs, obtaining directions are not that simple for one reason—to my knowledge, not a single internet map provider gives people an opportunity to select wheelchair-friendly directions.

The problem is especially noticeable in my hometown of New York City, where the subway system is so unfriendly to wheelchairs that it is in the midst of lawsuits right now. Given the lack of wheelchair access with the subways in New York, and with transit in many parts of the world, there is a severe need for wheelchair-friendly directions.

Yet, not a single internet map provider gives you the opportunity to plan out wheelchair-friendly directions. Google Maps may allow you to switch directions depending on whether you prefer the subway, the bus, fewer transfers, less walking, etc., but it does not allow you to switch directions depending on whether you need to avoid using stairs. Bing provides you fewer options than Google and fails to show wheelchair-friendly directions. Yahoo provides fewer options yet than Google and Bing, and Mapquest (AOL’s internet map service) does not seem like something you use if you need mass transit directions. Regardless of options, none of these internet map providers do the job of giving people wheelchair-friendly directions.

So if you can’t use stairs but want to make a day trip to the American Museum of Natural History, for example, you will find that all map providers are useless because of the lack of wheelchair-friendly directions. That is because the subway station for the museum lacks wheelchair accessibility, and there is nothing on any internet map provider which tells you that. Hopefully, people who suddenly lose the ability to use stairs will realize the uselessness of these internet map directions before starting out on their journeys.

Wheelchair Access Google
Google Maps lets you know whether you want the “best route,” “fewer transfers,” or “less walking,” but there is no option for “wheelchair accessible.” This picture was taken by me.

Between a lack of wheelchair-friendly transit (both mass transit and walking), and map providers such as Google and Bing failing to provide you with wheelchair-friendly transit directions, the result is that someone who desperately needs to avoid stairs will need to look hard for directions, and look much harder than able-bodied people like me.

The lack of wheelchair-accessible directions is an injustice, and an injustice I was blind to until recently. Yet, all it takes is something like a broken leg or a car crash that paralyzes part of your body, and suddenly you need to rely on wheelchair-friendly directions. If such an unfortunate event ever happens to you, you will not be able to rely on internet map providers for your transit directions. You will need to figure out directions through other means because internet maps, like so many other things, are made for an ableist world.