Life Before the ADA

The Americans With Disabilities Act and a judge hammer

The ADA turned 29 last week. These are things that people thought were acceptable before the ADA passed.

This is what my life USED to be like

No curb cuts

My mother is 5′ 4″ and 120 lbs soaking wet. Me, my wheelchair, and my casts were close to 200. Without curb cuts, I spent a lot of time waiting in the car as a teenager. She didn’t want to leave me at home, but she also couldn’t get me into the store. Thank God I got into UC Berkeley, because that was one of the few campuses that was wheelchair accessible before the ADA passed.

Sandy beach, with several boats, lifeguard tower and a wheelchair.
Sandy beach, with several boats, lifeguard tower and a wheelchair.

No trips to the beach

The big thing when I was a teenager was heading over the hill with your friends to Santa Cruz on warm summer weekends. Except beach wheelchairs weren’t a thing 29 years ago. I tried to go once (thank you for driving Erica Smith!) but ended up with sand inside my casts which was a most unpleasant experience.

Now, back in my summer home in Canada, I am a short distance from one of the nicest beaches in North America complete with ramps and a beach wheelchair.

No movies

Movie theaters typically had stairs that couldn’t be negotiated with a wheelchair. Even if the movie theater itself was accessible, you still had to deal with the mall and parking lot which might not be. Kids who spent extended time in the hospital REALLY missed movies. Remember, this was before cable and streaming video, the theater was all there was available.

I was hailed as a hero in the children’s ward when I managed to smuggle in a shaky, hand-held bootleg recordings of Star Wars (Episodes 4, 5 and 6 of course) on VHS. I think it cost me $75 which was a small fortune at the time, literally 30 hours of part time work cutting apricots at Mariani’s at minimum wage.

Lack of Accessible Restrooms

I had to curtail my liquid intake when I was out in a new area because I literally had no idea if I would be able to find an accessible bathroom. Still have to do this when I am overseas. And don’t even get me started on the NYC Subway system or Paris Metro. One time, I ended up with heat stroke in Austria as a result.

Second floor classrooms and lockers

My high school had many 2 story buildings, but no elevators. For the one class that I absolutely couldn’t live without, I bribed members of the football team to carry me upstairs every day at the end of lunch. When my parents complained, the school told them my other option was attending the school for disabled children. This was the school where none of the kids went to college because there weren’t any AP classes. Low expectations for children with disabilities are one the worst forms of discrimination, ever. When you spend your whole childhood being treated like you aren’t capable of doing things, you start to internalize the message.

When I moved into walking casts, I lost my balance using crutches on the stairs during an earthquake and broke my ankle for the umpteenth time. My high school experience was so miserable that I didn’t set foot in it after I dropped out until the memorial service for my favorite teacher three years ago where I noted that curb cuts and elevators now finally existed.

Lack of meaningful work opportunities

As a young adult, I worked as a release manager for a software company. Someone with cerebral palsy came and interviewed for a job. He was very qualified and I wanted to hire him, especially because I intrinsically knew how much trouble he would have finding a job elsewhere. My boss said no, it would be too expensive to convert the doors to power-assist. There were no laws against this at the time. I was successfully hiding my disabilities and chose to continue to do so, knowing that this was not a good time or place to disclose. I ended up leaving that job six months later, in part because my boss tried to fire me when I was on medical leave (also legal at the time).

The unemployment situation for people with disabilities is one of things that has not improved substantially since the ADA was enacted. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is still over 2.5X higher than that for people without disabilities. Discrimination in the education setting leads to fewer people with disabilities graduating from high school, and fewer people going to or graduating from college. Entry level jobs such as Starbucks or McDonald’s are not widely available for someone who is blind or has autism or mobility issues. Meanwhile, it is still legal in many places to pay below minimum wage in “sheltered workshop” settings.

Being uninsurable

Thirty years ago, once you had a disability, the insurance companies would do everything in their power to dump you (and your expensive disabilities) off their policies. They were legally allowed to refuse to accept you based on having a pre-existing condition. If you were lucky, you could get insurance that covered new medical conditions, but no coverage for anything connected to your disability.

Now with the Affordable Care Act, people with disabilities can stay on their parents’ policies until they are 26, then move over to Medicaid (if they are unemployed) or a state exchange plan. It’s expensive, but it beats going bankrupt due to an ER visit or unexpected surgery.

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