The ADA helps those of us with disabilities every day, thanks to HW

With the swipe of a pen on July 26, 1990, George H. W. Bush changed the landscape of America. By enacting the Americans with Disabilities Act, which I helped draft, he reversed decades of discrimination and empowered those of us with disabilities to be full participants in society. I have reminisced about him many times since his passing, and see his impact on my life and the lives of the disability community every day.

In 1967, my neck was broken in a car crash. Less than one year later, I was refused admission to a university because I used a wheelchair. Things are very different today — thanks in large part to the ADA.

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I got up this morning and went outside to catch the bus to work at The University of Texas School of Biomedical Informatics in Houston. I crossed two intersections and went up and down four curb ramps in the process.

I waited for the bus in a shelter that had a clear spot next to the bench for my wheelchair, while monitoring the bus’ progress toward my stop using an app on my smartphone designed for use by people who are visually impaired or like me who could not see the screen from the bright sunshine. When the bus arrived, the operator deployed a ramp, which I rolled up while he organized specially-made belts designed to secure my chair to the floor of the bus.

On the way in, I passed a fare card reader that did not require me to do anything but hold up my card. When I got to my seat, the driver offered me a restraint belt that was designed for use by someone in a wheelchair.

While riding on the bus, I noticed that the new sidewalks installed by the Parks Department along the bayou were fully accessible, and I mused about taking my wheelchair for a stroll along the water’s edge after work. After that, I started working with my smart phone using a voice-to-text app that only required me to speak.

I did not have to look up from my work to know my stop was coming because the annunciator on the bus automatically called out each stop. As I neared my stop, the bus passed the community college where I observed a group of students with intellectual disabilities whom I met a week ago during a job fair.

After bidding my fellow riders and the bus operator adieu, I rolled up the ramp into my school, passing through power sliding doors. At the elevators, I used the adapted buttons to call the elevator to proceed to my classroom on the 14th floor where I taught today.

We’re moving into new building addition, but in the meantime, I’m teaching out of a now outdated, too-high teaching console in my classroom; thus requiring my graduate assistant, who was provided in part as a reasonable accommodation for me, to assist in the preparations for the class.

While the graduate assistant was loading all the software in the teaching console, I daydreamed about our new facilities, which were designed from the beginning to be fully accessible. Not only were the architects for the facilities chosen for their experience with accessible design, but specialist architects were also employed to ensure every aspect of the environment was accommodating for our students, staff, and faculty with disabilities.

After the design work was done, two separate code reviews were conducted by barrier-free design experts using guidelines from the U.S. Access Board. I was surprised and delighted to learn that the construction manager for the contracting firm completed a one-week ADA access boot camp prior to working on the project.

When I sneaked into the construction area two weeks ago, I was pleased to see that all the teaching consoles and desks were height adjustable. The reception, administrative and student study and work areas had specially designed accessible kiosks. The bathrooms were oversized with even more turn around space than the law requires. Of course, being the School of Biomedical Informatics, there are more electronics, computers, digital highways and next generation media facilities than one might find at a SpaceX launch site. All of it amenable to use by people with mobility, sensory, intellectual, and hidden disabilities. 

I woke up from my daydream when my students began to come into the classroom. It makes me happy to know that our students with disabilities receive needed accommodations and that all students are learning to design software, medical devices, and other products that are usable by anyone, including people with disabilities.

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After class, I headed for lunch, so I rolled out of the building, crossed the intersection at a place where there were reflective crosswalk markings and crosswalk annunciators with a countdown clock that told me the time remaining to cross the intersection.

I went to the light rail transit stop across from our building and rolled up a ramp to wait for a rail car. The rail car stopped level with the platform, so I could roll right onto the train. After riding a couple of stops, I departed the light rail and crossed the street while using curb ramps and powered doors to get to my favorite café. Inside the café, I sat at a booth that was open on one side so that wheelchair users and other folks who just wanted to use plain chairs could sit.

I ordered my Texas barbeque and while waiting on my lunch, I watched the captioned news on television and gazed around the cafe.

It occurred to me that nearly half of the patrons in the restaurant were using wheelchairs, canes, or walkers. Two individuals were using braille menus, and the couple in the booth across the way were having a very animated conversation, using sign language. Once my meal arrived, I took a moment to give thanks for the ADA and for the leadership and friendship of George H.W. Bush.

Lex Frieden, MA, LLD, served as executive director of the National Council on Disability from 1984 to 1988. It was in that capacity, in 1986, that he first shared the proposal for the ADA with then Vice President George H.W. Bush. Frieden is professor of Biomedical Informatics at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. He directs the Southwest ADA Center at TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston, Texas.