Before President George H. W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, 1990, many people couldn’t navigate their homes and their communities. There simply weren’t enough ramps for wheelchairs or sign language interpreters or flexibility in jobs to accommodate physical and mental challenges.
“It’s not the disability that’s the problem, it’s the environment and the attitudes,” said Patricia Yeager, CEO of The Independence Center, which on Thursday hosted a virtual celebration in honor of the 31st anniversary of the ADA’s birth. “That systemic setup kept us from participating.”
The act, which prevents discrimination in employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications and access to government programs, culminated decades of work of disabled communities rising up to demand full participation in society, speakers said.
“Yes, we’ve come a long ways, but we still have a long ways to go,” Colorado Springs writer and traumatic brain injury patient Stephanie Symonette said. “We’re still having to advocate for ourselves to get basic necessities.”
The civil rights movement for equal treatment and access for people with disabilities began in the 1800s and gained strength in the 1940s, Yeager said, when psychiatric patients formed groups to assist transitioning from hospitals to communities.
Inroads in building codes, transportation, employment and health care have been hard fought but successful, she said.
Several new local projects are improving accessibility, Mayor John Suthers said during the event, including the renovated Memorial Park Beach House, which opened this week, as well as Helen Hunt Falls and Garden of the Gods Park.
The city also has installed 1,400 curb ramps and half a million square feet of accessible sidewalks, Suthers said; has improved online information, such as bus schedules; and has a phone application to report handicapped parking violations.
The environment toward people with disabilities has changed and continues to change, said local speakers, who count themselves among those leading the fight.
Amelia Dall, a deaf archaeologist who moved to Colorado four years ago and created a project called Amelia the Archaeologist, said she didn’t face any barriers in childhood, as both her parents are deaf and taught her to reach for the stars. But during fast-paced college days, Dall said she had to figure out ways to have a voice in classes and social interactions.
She taught colleagues and professors simple signs while working in the field, for example, that benefited everyone and reduced the need for walkie talkies.
Dall learned that as she educated people about her needs as a deaf student, others were more likely to gain understanding and willingly include her.
“I feel like I’ve made an impact,” she said through an interpreter.
One of Dall’s missions now is to uncover historical information about deaf people in ancient cultures.
“I feel I have that obligation to work hard and find history of deaf people over time, documenting it and recording it,” she said.
Independence to Jeremy Chatelain, who became a quadriplegic after severing his spinal cord in a swimming incident, means being able to reach a light switch and easily roll into his garage or house.
It means attending a symphony concert without being an afterthought, stuck a corner of the venue, or not having to watch his family from the parking lot while they frolic on the beach.
Most of all, it involves getting his wheelchair dirty, he said during Thursday’s event.
Chatelain, an Independence Center board member and local educator, recently acquired a new TerrainHopper mobility chair that enables him to jump curbs, traverse rocks and play in the sand — activities he hasn’t been able to do in a traditional wheelchair.
A doctor once told him he was glad to see Chatelain was getting his wheelchair dirty.
“So that we can experience life,” he said.
Symonette, whose brain was injured after she fell on the ice as a child, was hit by a car in college and got pummeled in vehicle crash as an adult, said because her injury is not visible, she’s judged constantly for her memory and processing problems.
“Don’t look at me as having a disability because I’m not a traumatic brain injury — I’m a person, a woman, an African-American,” she said. “One of my missions in life is to continue advocating for myself so that I can continue to advocate for others.”
She encourages people to “even in the smallest way,” look for and embrace commonalities, not differences. Say "hi" to someone in a wheelchair, for instance, to validate their presence.
“It’s taken me a while to know that I have that right to advocate for myself,” Symonette said, “and if I speak up for needs that are not being met, that allows me to have more independence.”