Merchants who delay making their businesses accessible to people with disabilities are breaking federal law and losing potential revenues.
That was the message Joan Stein delivered Monday during a daylong celebration at Station Square marking the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Ms. Stein, the president of ADA Inc., a Pittsburgh consulting firm that advises government and industry on how to comply with the landmark federal law, described how store employees and servers too often address only the companion of someone in a wheelchair.
"Talk to me," she urged sales people, waiters and waitresses. "I have money. ... People with disabilities have $175 billion in discretionary income."
She was one of a dozen panelists and speakers who took part in a community forum to discuss the progress the disability community has made in the past two decades and the challenges that remain.
Stan Holbrook, one of three keynote speakers, linked the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, known as the ADA, to the civil rights struggle and the words of the Declaration of Independence.
The crowd of more than 200 in the Admiral Room of the Sheraton at Station Square responded to his remarks with whoops and hollers.
"Don't be so solemn," he chided the audience at the start of his talk. "They should be able to hear us outside the hotel.
People cheered and clapped as he described how the federal law, signed July 26, 1990, required businesses and governments to provide people with physical or mental handicaps equal access to employment, education, courthouses, voting booths, hotels and stores.
Under the law, people with disabilities "had a right to live in Squirrel Hill, a right to eat in Station Square restaurants, a right to go to school," he said.
Echoing words from the Declaration of Independence, Mr. Holbrook said the ADA helped bring to life the 234-year-old document's guarantees of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Mr. Holbrook is president of Three Rivers Center for Independent Living.
The formal program was followed by an evening street festival in the Bessemer Court outside the hotel that featured dancing, live music and other entertainment.
The event was sponsored by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services and several social service agencies, including United Cerebral Palsy Community Living and Support Services, Three Rivers Center for Independent Living, City-County Task Force on Disabilities and the Consumer Health Coalition.
Organizers sought to make sure that participants, many of whom use wheelchairs or had companion dogs, didn't face obstacles during the event. Aisles were wide to allow for the maneuvering of their chairs. Remarks by speakers and comments from audience members were translated into sign language and projected onto a screen at the front of the room, offering closed captions for those with hearing problems.
The anniversary celebration came on the same day that Pittsburgh released new hospital compliance guidelines designed to improve communications between medical institutions and their patients with disabilities.
Work on the new rules began in 2007 after the City-County Task Force on Disabilities heard complaints from the deaf, deaf-blind and hard-of-hearing communities. The new rules were developed by the city's Planning Department with information and comments from local hospitals and the disabled community.
"[T]hese guidelines will ultimately make our city more ADA friendly and help our disabled residents receive the communication and accessibility tools they need during hospital visits," Mayor Like Ravenstahl said in a statement.
Janet Evans didn't wait for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act to begin to take control of her life. During the public comment portion of Monday's forum, she talked about leaving institutional living at Allegheny Valley School in 1976 for her own apartment.
The 56-year-old resident of Glen Hazel, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, was an early participant in a pilot program to integrate people with disabilities into their communities.
Over the past 34 years she has earned her high school diploma and an associate's degree from Community College of Allegheny County, worked in sales and security and, with her late husband, Harry, started a laundry business. She also serves as president of the Tenants Council in the Bernice W. Crawley Manor high-rise where she lives.
"I did not want to sit back and let my wheelchair define me," she said. "I'm celebrating today, because [the ADA] has helped me give back to the community."
While the 1990 law has helped remove many barriers for people with disabilities, many challenges remain, according to Lucy Spruill, director of public policy and community relations at United Cerebral Palsy.
Unemployment rates remain above 30 percent for people with disabilities -- triple the rate for the general public. "That means the economy is losing out on all those talents and abilities," she said.
At the same time, technological advances, especially in computer technology, have cut the costs for typical workplace changes needed by employees with disabilities, she said. Studies done for Sears and Manpower Inc., the employment agency, found that the accommodation expense was only about $500 for the average staff member with a disability.
Len Barcousky: email@example.com or 412-263-1159.