2020-08-03
Story

Protests in Denver in 1978 resulted in more wheelchair-accessible buses, and helped catalyze a national movement for disability rights and accommodations.

Photo courtesy of Atlantis Communities

By Michael Booth

During high school and early in college, the record of Naomi Morrow’s schools or employers doing much of anything to accommodate her impaired vision was spotty at best.

Morrow, now 42, worked in a hospital laundry running the washing machines, and managers let her put colored Braille bump dots on various controls. Her parents mainstreamed her at the Nederland, Colo. elementary school instead of seeking out a specialized school for people with visual impairment or blindness—a noble idea, undercut somewhat by Morrow getting shunted off to a special education classroom.

At a family-owned coffee shop in high school, Morrow showed up ready to do the same work as everyone else. The manager couldn’t seem to adapt, and fired her.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed when she was 12, but it took a few years for the landmark civil rights legislation to trickle down through society. It was at college where Morrow started feeling the impact of the sweeping mandates.

Metro State University in Denver assigned Morrow an adaptive living counselor, who let her know she could live and take classes with a guide dog. A demo of ZoomText—computer software that magnifies type on screen and also reads aloud what it sees—changed her life. The college would supply it, and make sure all of her coursework was compatible with it.

“I didn’t know what reasonable accommodation looked like and what I could ask for in the workforce, until freshman year of college,” said Morrow, who went on to earn a Master of Social Work and is now an independent living specialist and advocate with the nonprofit Atlantis Communities.

“The struggle was real in the 1980s! There was not access. When I tell my younger coworkers and clients about all that, they shake their head and say, ‘how did you survive?’”

President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law on July 26, 1990, as one crest of a movement that built throughout the 1970s and 1980s to bring many of the same civil rights and legal protections for disability that had been extended to race, gender and other groups in the 1960s. An ADA educational website calls the bipartisan-supported law “the world's first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities.”

Disability rights activists in Colorado draw a straight line from the ADA back to 1978 in the heart of downtown Denver. That July, protesters in wheelchairs rolled in front of a RTD bus that had just stopped at the busiest transit corner in Colorado, Colfax Avenue and Broadway, to spotlight the lack of accessible buses in the metro transit system. In fact, at the time, few (if any) city transit systems in the nation had significant fleets of accessible buses.

More wheelchairs rolled behind a second bus, and the soon-to-be-dubbed Gang of 19 made national news by refusing to move overnight and into the next day. RTD quickly negotiated a settlement, agreeing to retrofit more than 200 buses with wheelchair lifts, and an energized disability community took protests across the nation. Years later, just before the ADA was passed, wheelchair users found another indelibly dramatic way to demonstrate barriers, physically crawling up the steps of the U.S. Capitol on national TV to demand ramps and lifts.

The revolutionary aspects of the ADA include:

  • Employers cannot discriminate against people with physical or mental health disabilities in hiring, managing or firing, in the same way the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, religion and other protected classes
  • Employers, public transit agencies, educational institutions and others must make “reasonable accommodations” to serve people with disabilities with access equal to the rest of the population
  • Hotels, restaurants and other services for the general public must make reasonable accommodations for access to their premises and services
  • New building construction must include physical accommodations that offer equitable access for people with disabilities, ranging from wider doorways for wheelchairs to Braille lettering on office doors
  • Telecommunications services must create workable accommodations for various disabilities
  • The act also cleared the way for wider use of service animals by codifying where they had to be accepted.

The new protections brought relief to a large number of people: The CDC estimates that 1 in 4 Americans have a disability that affects major life activities.

Yet three decades after the ADA was enacted, true equality for people with disabilities still lags in several key areas.

Independent living and equal access to employment have long been primary goals of disability activism, reflecting major gaps in equity across the country. Just 47% of Colorado adults with disabilities were employed in 2018, compared to 81% of people without disabilities, according to an annual Census analysis by the University of New Hampshire (UNH). That contributes to a high rate of poverty as well, with 22% of Colorado adults with disabilities living at or below poverty levels, compared to 14% of the non-disabled population, according to the UNH analysis.

How the ADA plays out in everyday life, 30 years later, is of course unpredictable and uneven. Many advocates continue to fight for enforcement and funding of independent-living rules, given new urgency by the number of illnesses and deaths in group-living institutions like nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the positive impacts of the ADA are also widespread and detailed. Take Naomi Morrow’s pre-COVID-19 commutes to work in central Denver, or to run errands around town. Advocates and a responsive RTD management did not stop at bus retrofits in the 1970s. Access-A-Ride services, where riders with disabilities can call for van pickups anywhere RTD serves, are now a core function of all transit agencies and vigorously defended during budget cutbacks.

The ADA mindset helped create permanent disability-advisory committees at RTD that are not required by law, and advocates say they contribute monthly to ongoing adaptations. For example, RTD wanted a phone number or computer app for Access-A-Ride that would tell the rider exactly where their particular van was en route, since the half-hour scheduling windows can force people with disabilities to wait curbside in uncomfortable heat or cold.

A RTD committee of community members said the app was great—but what about people with visual impairments, like Morrow? The software vendor said they couldn’t adapt the app to include voice readouts or other aids. So the transit agency’s IT staff, involved in the committee meetings, said they could do it, and are currently beta-testing a locator app that works for everyone.

“The ADA is one of those acts that unless the disability community pushes the right buttons, nothing gets done,” said Jaime Lewis, chair of one of the RTD advisory committees and a transit expert with the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition (a Colorado Trust grantee).

Emily Harvey, an advocate and attorney with the nonprofit Colorado Disability Law, said the ADA’s 30th anniversary intersects with monumental shifts in perceptions of other civil rights issues, with the resurgence of Black Lives Matter and growing societal awareness of the prevalence and impact of sexual harassment and discrimination. “In race and intersectionality and sexuality, disability is the one that gets left out,” Harvey said. “There’s a big conversation now on disadvantages in life, and disability is always the one that gets forgotten.”

One difference, noted Harvey, who was born without a fibula and works (and races triathlons) on an artificial leg, is that the ranks of people with disabilities grow as natural aging and other factors change people’s functionality. “One fun thing about the disability community: you can join any time,” she said dryly.

Wheelchair ramps and service animals on airplanes are some of the most visible legacies of the ADA, advocates note. But one of the most important yet obscure parts of the law is the legal support for independent living whenever possible, a movement that grew from the same Denver-area activists who took on transit in the 1970s.

Wade Blank, a Denver-based Presbyterian minister who turned to activism in the 1970s, worked with young people who were physically or developmentally disabled, who had been shunted to nursing homes because they’d been abandoned by families and mishandled by government. Blank and activists turned a youth wing of Heritage House nursing home in Denver into a college dorm, opening it up to resident requests for pets, rock concerts and better food.

The movement helped create Atlantis Communities, which promoted the concept of government support “following the person” instead of being controlled by the institution. Atlantis organized group homes and independent living, and has done so ever since. “Helping people live the lives they want to live, where they want to live,” is how current Atlantis Communities Executive Director Candie Burnham simplifies it.

In part because of steady, decades-long pressure from disability activists and advocates, Colorado remains a leader in adapting policy to the “money follows the person” concept, Burnham said: “There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we were one of the first to pass state legislation moving people out of nursing homes. We have one of the best home- and community-based services programs in the country.”

Yet it’s in the complex tangle of money, guardianship and institutional control over living conditions that makes the ADA vital, advocates say. Disability Law Colorado and other advocates believe that even after years of work, there are still many people stuck in nursing facilities who desire and are capable of supported independent living.

The state is supposed to make sure that each nursing home resident has a sit-down consultation each year to review their needs and seek alternative living situations that might be possible. Those reviews still do not happen consistently, according to Harvey.

“There’s just not a good system,” Harvey said. “It’s actually cheaper to serve people in the community than to serve them in institutions, but it’s been our go-to system for so long that it’s all people know.”

Follow-on legislation has helped maximize the power of the ADA, notably the federal Workforce Investment Act of 1998, said Bill Edwards, executive director of the nonprofit Center Toward Self-Reliance, which has offices in Pueblo, southeastern Colorado and the San Luis Valley. The 1998 act, updated in 2013, promoted the idea of “one-stop” centers for education, job seeking, training and physical or skills rehabilitation for workers with disabilities.

The Center Toward Self-Reliance does everything from help people appeal negative Social Security disability insurance decisions, to warehouse job training, to transitions out of nursing homes, to nutrition classes for the newly independent. One of nine such centers across Colorado, Edwards said, they operate on the philosophy developed from the 1970s and 1980s protests: “Nothing about us without us.”

At least 51% of the centers’ employees and board members must have a disability, Edwards said. Edwards himself has traumatic brain injuries from concussions and skull fractures he suffered while a probation officer in Texas.

“We are not trying to be a nurse or nanny to individuals,” he said. “We try to stick to, here’s where you are, here’s where you sound like you want to be, how do we get that going? That’s the whole point of the ADA—not for government as the be-all and end-all, but how can they move on and take charge of their own life?”

People who get involved in the Pueblo center have ended up as policy advocates, Edwards noted. The cash-strapped City of Pueblo has sometimes been slow to alter sidewalks with the $5,000 to $10,000 curb cuts that make wheelchair travel possible. The ADA advisory council for Pueblo pushes the city for more.

“Bit by bit, the city is making progress toward making the curb cuts wheelchair-friendly,” Edward said. “I think without the ADA, that never would have happened.”

The biggest remaining hurdles for people living with disabilities continue to be accessible housing and fair employment opportunities, according to advocates. Pueblo’s waiting list for accessible housing is eight years, Edwards said.

For Morrow and many of the people she works with, the ultimate independence is a meaningful job. “A lot of people with disabilities are at a crossroads: they want financial freedom, and that means getting off government benefits,” she said.

Morrow can’t count the number of times a prospective employer has told her she “looks good on paper,” with a packed resume, but balks upon meeting her and thinks her vision problems will be a barrier.

“I want companies and organizations to know that hiring somebody with a disability is one of the best decisions you’ll ever make,” Morrow said. Disabled employees, for one thing, stay with their employer far longer than others, she said.

“You’ll never have a more loyal employee.”

Related story: Accessiblity Challenges Persist in Many Rural Colorado Communities

Michael Booth
Writer
Denver, Colorado