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Journalistic amnesia is a real negative when it comes to disability and the ADA

The criticism leveled most often at journalists is we have amnesia. We get incredibly excited over things like tsunamis, hurricanes and oil spills and then we tend to forget them even while real suffering continues.

The same thing happens with large societal issues. There is certainly an argument that we got smug about race relations in this country until President Barack Obama’s campaign and election highlighted some ugly realities. Intense personal experience in the last six weeks has made me realize journalists and society have suffered severe amnesia on the issue of disability in America.

Your first reaction is probably similar to my view prior to July 21. “Thank God, the American Disability Act fixed all the mobility problems the disabled face every day.” Horse hockey. I am here to testify that without the ADA disabled folk would be totally lost, but wipe the smug look off your mugs because the disabled still face a long, uphill climb because the ADA is being followed only “technically.” I fear the remaining challenges will get worse because minimal compliance now seems to be the standard. And from my perch, journalists are totally oblivious to the fact that new buildings are being built that are incredibly difficult to navigate.

Some background seems necessary. I was born with a congenital birth defect called Arthrogryposis multicongenita. My parents were horrified and worried I would never walk. After 13 surgeries in 16 years and countless casts and braces I was, while not normal in carriage and stature, certainly functional. Functional enough to run a major metropolitan newspaper for 20 plus years in one capacity or another.
For most of my adult life I never, ever, wanted to be considered handicapped.

There were two reasons. One, I wanted to be judged along with everybody else and wanted no breaks. Secondly, I always felt like a bit of a handicapped dilettante. When I was a kid, crutches, wheelchairs and braces were either toys, or hurdles to leap to show people I could not be stopped. As an adult I felt that as long as I was mobile I wasn’t “really” handicapped. People in wheelchairs and other assistive devices were challenged in ways I knew I could not appreciate.

I now have just a bit of that appreciation

On July 23, after years of terrible ankle pain I elected to have the bones in my left ankle fused. (The right ankle will follow in December.) Suddenly in my 61st year I was using a wheelchair, a motorized scooter and a modern contraption alternatively called a knee walker, knee scooter, knee stroller or leg caddy. The idea is you put your injured leg on a knee rest and push with your other leg just like my grandson does with his little scooter. In fact, four-year old Collin knowingly patted my scooter the first time he saw it and said with passion, “nice scooter, Grandpa.”

My leg surgery has caused “the scales to drop from my eyes.” It is time for journalists to intentionally use the same method I accidentally used to discover that the ADA minimums have left a world that is an obstacle course to navigate. Journalists need to spend a week in wheelchairs and something like a knee scooter to genuinely understand and communicate that we need to reconsider the ADA. Sure, curb cuts, ramps and others ADA commandments have helped, but there is so much more that could be done.

Here are some of the things such an undercover operation would reveal.

The ADA apparently does not require that every door in a new building have an automatic door opener. Many, many doors in public buildings must be opened manually. I am far more nimble in my current condition than a quadriplegic or a paraplegic and I still struggle and twist myself into a pretzel to open many doors. The only other option is to wait for the kindness of strangers–a risky and demeaning proposition.

ADA minimum standard restrooms in public buildings and private restaurants are no treat either. There is often no maneuvering room at all and here’s one I would never have thought about on two legs: if a stall door opens out, the person in a wheelchair is screwed. You can’t close the $%^#$% stall door. Builders, either make sure stall doors open in or put enough spring on them that they bounce back!

And then there are macadam walkways, stone tile floors and rugs, all of which make navigation damn near impossible on one of these knee scooters.

And, don’t forget private homes. I was shocked to discover that my own Scottsdale home has a four-inch “lip” at both the front and back doors. I had honestly never noticed nor appreciated that.

I said above we need to reconsider the ADA. The reason is the minimum standards of the ADA are often being used as a bludgeon. Architects, contractors and building supervisors know the minimum standards and far too many refuse to take one single step beyond the minimums. I have begun to pray there is a special place in hell for anybody involved in construction who ever utters the phrase “well it meets ADA minimum standards.” In that room in hell they would all be forced to live for an eternity from a wheelchair in the buildings they designed and built!

There is an alternative. As a Twitter follower, I am quite sure it was Elaine Clisham, tweeted to me when I complained about the state of things, universal design might be the answer. Universal design is a concept that would make buildings barrier free and usable for everyone.

I certainly understand that all news is personal and my perspective has been dramatically altered by my recent experience. But that’s sort of the point. Journalists live their own lives absorbed by the next societal train wreck. They do not spend enough time studying stories that have slipped off the front page but still affect thousands.

I am convinced genuine journalistic investigation would reveal that the ADA did great things, but it is clearly time for a facelift. Further, such an investigation would inevitably show that “the minimums” are not nearly enough to make public and private spaces navigable for the handicapped. Finally aggressive journalists need to probe “Universal Design” to see if it is a feasible alternative to the “minimalist” approach the experts now seem to employ.