Notthe Last Word

 Northern Reflections on the ADA

by Duane M. French


Duane M. French worked the halls of Congress (and the streets with ADAPT) to get the ADA passed. After a long career in independednt living, French is now Director of the Alaska Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Riding down the road from Anchorage to Homer, I am overwhelmed by the beauty of the mountains. Other slopes I see create a similar warmth and joy: These slopes are ramps on small businesses in rural parts of Alaska.

For years people with disabilities knew not to stop at these roadside businesses because they were inaccessible. People with disabilities can now finally use the same roadside conveniences available to everyone else is because of the advocacy and tireless efforts of champions for disability rights.

The specific efforts of which I write would not have been possible without the earlier grassroots activism efforts of folks like Steve Brown ("Some reflections on the ADA," Sept./Oct.) and others who moved the Americans with Disabilities Act toward final passage into law back in 1990.

Left to the compassion and concern of their owners, these businesses would never have been made accessible, though--even after passage of the ADA--had it not been for the willingness of people like Dr. Jesse Owens, a professor in Bio-Medical Science at the University of Alaska Anchorage who has a disability, to use the law's enforcement provisions.

If Jesse had had to find a private attorney to pursue compliance with the ADA and to mount a campaign to make hundreds of businesses more accessible, though, he would have been sorely disappointed. Fortunately, Alaska has a great Protection and Advocacy agency, the Disability Law Center of Alaska. They have made a commitment to ADA enforcement.

The dogged determination and extreme genius of attorney Janel Wright, assigned by the Disability Law Center to the project, has brought about these new slopes for integrating people with disabilities in Alaska. Initiating the ADA enforcement effort required courage on the part of Owens, Wright, and Rick Tessandore, Executive Director of the Disability Law Center, and its board of directors. Threatening to bring suits against over 300 businesses is sure to draw major heat and attention to your organization. But Mr. Tessandore and the Disability Law Center board acted on their belief that "if their organization wouldn't fight for ADA compliance, then what did they stand for and what kind of force would they represent in disability rights in Alaska?"

These passionate actions to advance the civil rights of people with disabilities have led to having over 200 businesses being made more accessible; they did it to avoid being ordered by the court to comply with the law. Hundreds more businesses then complied without even the threat of being sued. They did so because "it is the law."

Today I can tell hotels that offer shuttle services that they have to have accessible shuttles or get me another accessible ride. That was something I couldn't do before the ADA. People with disabilities in Alaska can ride the Alaska Railroad and use Princess motor-coaches, too, as a result of the ADA.

While I understand the impatience and frustration expressed by Brown in his article, I think it's critical for all of us to remember how important the ADA is in our lives. We cannot be discouraged by the technical limits of the ADA. It is imperative for those of us with disabilities to litigate when necessary to end discrimination for our generation--and as our legacy to future generations of Americans with disabilities!

Rosa Parks probably didn't want to go through the drudgery of going to jail and being fined for not moving to the back of the bus, but she knew her personal inconvenience paled in comparison to the important principles she believed in. The ADA isn't perfect; but the gains it offers will propel us as a movement to expect more from our culture and ourselves. It is my hope that with higher expectations future generations of people with disabilities will quit settling for less like so many of us with disabilities have done throughout our lives.

When the sacrifices we must make in our struggle for civil rights (read: "time and energy") are weighed against those made by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., it becomes clear to me that we are acting pretty damned lazy. Every time we let public school districts--or any other businesses--ask questions about physical impairments, we have let young people with disabilities down by leaving the hard work of civil rights enforcement up to them. When leaders in our movement who hold powerful positions jump on the "litigation is bad" bandwagon., we must hold them accountable: Without litigation, or the threat of litigation, the rights of Americans with disabilities could easily be lost.

Fight on, my brothers and sisters! If not for your own civil rights then, for the rights of children with disabilities, so their lives can be as rich as--or richer than--ours.


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