While the luncheon thrown Monday by The Independence Center celebrated the silver anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, it was also a call to action.
“Colorado Springs is a challenging place to be for the disabled,” said Independence Center Executive Director Patricia Yeager.
“Sidewalks are impossible; curb cuts don’t work. If you don’t drive, transportation is nonexistent. You have to be very determined, very creative to live in the Pikes Peak region with a disability. Health care is a problem; it’s harder to get a doctor to see you.
“But still, I have hope.”
Yeager’s hope stems from the ADA, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. The civil rights law prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunities for people with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities and transportation. The act is credited with making buses and trains more accessible, as well as businesses, hotels, theaters and sports stadiums.
Yet, more than two decades later, there’s still work to be done.
“It’s like we just got started,” Yeager said. “But the ADA is coming over Monument Hill and the Springs is ready for it.”
Advocates credit the ADA with lowering the unemployment rate for people with disabilities, as well as making it easier for them to get to work. Currently, the national unemployment rate for that population is more than 80 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
More work could change that, Yeager said.
“People with disabilities deserve equal access,” she told the crowd of 300 people at the invitation-only lunch. “Change is starting to happen; we just need it to happen now.”
“It’s up to the advocates, the parents, the elected officials to turn it into law, to make it work.”
– Richard Devylder
Richard Devylder, the keynote speaker at the event and a lifelong advocate for the disabled, can attest to the difficulties in accessing public transportation and health care. Born without limbs, the 45-year-old works for the California Department of Emergency Management, serving as a voice and representative for the disabled.
He lives alone and needs minimal help during the day. He is forced to take a motorized wheelchair into the street to catch the light-rail train that takes him into the office.
“My neighborhood doesn’t have curb cuts,” he said. “So I have to use the streets — it’s too dangerous not to.
“And when I looked for a place to live, I had to turn down three places. Not because they weren’t accessible, they were. Because of the streets — the sidewalks were cracked and broken. It was too dangerous for me.”
Part of his job with the state of California is to let state officials know about the needs of the disabled — and to come up with ways to provide more accessibility.
“I’m going to say something controversial,” he told the crowd. “I hate disabled advisory groups. I hate them. If this is going to work well, everyone needs to be at all the tables — not sitting alone at an advisory table. When I started, they asked me who was going to be on the advisory committees and how soon I could have a database of disabled people for the emergency management crews. I told them that neither of those things would be happening.”
Devylder’s current job opportunity came after 2007 wildfires swept the state of California, making it glaringly obvious that the state needed a plan to evacuate disabled people from their homes.
It’s a problem that Yeager is familiar with. During the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012, she worked with city emergency management officials to address the needs of the disabled.
“We’re friends now,” she said. “But you do have to be that voice — and you can’t be nice about it. We don’t have time to be nice about access.”
For many in the audience, the fight for equal access had gone on for more than just a handful of decades. They recalled the 1970s protest when disabled people surrounded buses in Denver, demanding equal access to public transportation. For them, the fight continues.
“It’s simply a blueprint,” Devylder said. “It’s up to the advocates, the parents, the elected officials to turn it into law, to make it work. It’s not just the work of a single group — all of us have to work together to implement it. We don’t need new laws to enforce, we just need to enforce the law that already exists.”
Devylder believes that accessibility doesn’t only benefit the disabled.
“It’s about everyone,” he said. “It helps everyone. When everyone is participating in society freely and completely, everyone benefits.”
Happy anniversary, ADA.