If It's Accessible, They Will Come

In defense of handicap accessiblity.

By Janet M. Gresham

Gates of public access unlocked during the last decade of the 20th Century have revolutionized life for people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act has brought many public places within easier reach of those who "walk" in wheelchairs, read in Braille, communicate in sign language or hear with technology.

Access to schools, restaurants, lodging, transportation, recreation and even medical facilities and churches is no longer the big bugaboo it once was. As the mother of a son with disabilities, I am delighted. As a citizen who prefers limited government, I am disappointed. How much better able the disabled could have pursued happiness years ago had great numbers of public facilities voluntarily opened those gates. It is distressing that disability advocates had to persuade government to coerce it.

But the coercion has meant easier participation not only in education and jobs but in the normal course of human activities such as using a restroom, getting to a second floor and rolling a wheelchair into a restaurant without negotiating steps. My brother, who used a wheelchair until about age 8, could not maneuver the steps into the schoolhouse. Plus, there was no special education classes in our town in the early 1960s. Until he could walk, my brother was tutored at home by our mother and a retired teacher. On the few trips we took, our destinations and lodging depended on the availability of first-floor accessibility, ramps and elevators. There weren't many tourist sites, restaurants or motels with such accommodations then.

Yet, despite my experiences with family members, even I did not realize all the difficulties of those in wheelchairs until the day a visitor to my town urgently asked me for directions to the nearest handicapped restroom. She was independently managing her wheelchair, and fortunately, I was able to tell her it was about two blocks away at the public library.

These days, I see many more people in wheelchairs everywhere I go. Private enterprise may finally be realizing the practicality of it. The naysayers who once questioned the need for handicapped parking and ramps at places such as skating rinks should see the grin on my son's face as he sits inside the skating rink while his brothers skate. He might not be able to see the skaters, but he loves the music, the sounds and the lights.

We've experienced this new freedom of mobility many places in the almost 12 years since our twin sons were born very prematurely. Clint is severely limited in what he can do and where he can go. But, about the time he transferred from a stroller to a wheelchair, the ADA went into effect. Since then, his school changed steps into ramps, and Clint is easily rolled the distance for participation in a mainstreamed class. We no longer have to bump his chair up and down to traverse curbs in town. The curbs all have recessed ramps. Most recently, a park near our town has built a concrete path so wheelchair users can enjoy the nature trail to Clear Creek. Our church has included handicapped parking and a restroom in the new children's building. The public library, which has been a local leader in accessibility, has a remote control system for opening its heavy, outside doors.

We have felt the impact of accessibility other places as well. After twisting an ankle at Magic Kingdom, our eldest son discovered he could not even walk from EPCOT's parking lot to Spaceship Earth. So, we rented a wheelchair for $5. Since he could manage short distances, he was able to use the chair for long distances around the park, then hobble into the exhibit halls. The courtesy shown wheelchair-bound guests at EPCOT was outstanding and made the visit much easier for the whole family.

Over at Stone Mountain, Ga., a train chugs around the base of the mountain. We hadn't checked the accessibility of the train trip, and just as my husband was preparing to ride it with our other two sons, the conductor came over to Clint and me and said the train had a wheelchair lift, so come on! Clint enjoyed the ride up the lift almost as much as the train trip itself. At Atlanta's Turner Field, we were able to sit in a section designed especially for people in wheelchairs and their group. Even local high schools have added sections to their bleachers for wheelchair users. In previous times, those who couldn't climb bleachers watched the game at ground level and usually from behind a crowd of fence straddlers.

At a popular ironworks park in our state, a sidewalk for strollers and wheelchairs now connects one side of the park with the other. Not many years ago, only the walkers could follow a wooded nature trail to make the trek without having to move the car.

And at President Franklin Roosevelt's Little White House at Warm Springs, Ga., those with disabilities find wonderfully planned accessibility, from remote-control gates and inclined walkways to programs that include accommodations for the visually and hearing impaired.

It all just goes to show that if it's accessible, those with physical challenges will come.

Copyright by Janet M. Gresham