The landmark American with Disabilities Act has changed standards and improved lives. Next up: improvements in jobs and housing.
May 3, 2015 12:00 AM
Rosalie Sinagra brushes her son's teeth at their home in Brookline. Nick Sinagra, who uses a wheelchair for mobility, was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy and needs round the clock assistance. "This has become their lifestyle, too," he said.
Nick Sinagra, technology director, gets help with a phone call from Mary Tresky, 18, center, with Alli Stein, 17, at Bishop Canevin High School in Carnegie. The girls, seniors at the school, stop in and visit Nick several times a day in his office. "You have two young adults who aren't afraid of somebody with a disability, which honestly I couldn't say 20 or 25 years ago," said Mr. Sinagra.
Nick Sinagra, technology director at Bishop Canevin High School, gets help from intern Anthony Sanner in his office at the school in Carnegie.
Nick Sinagra, technology director, edits a presentation at Bishop Canevin High School. Mr. Sinagra of Brookline was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy when he was 17 months old.
Ken Sinagra goes through nightly leg exercises with his son Nick Sinagra, 30, at their home in Brookline. Nick, who uses a wheelchair for mobility, was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy and needs round the clock assistance.
Thomas Sanchez of North Versailles is a program specialist at CLASS, Community Living and Support Services, in Edgewood. He says employment for people with disabilities and health care are two issues that still need improvement under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Sergei Stemmler of Allison Park, a participant in the Community Skill Building Program at CLASS talks about the Americans with Disabilities Act. "Without ACCESS transportation I would be homebound," he said. While sometimes frustrating due to the length of the rides, he uses the service to get to movies, other shopping destinations and to CLASS.
Janis Thoma-Negley of New Kensington is a program specialist at CLASS. She said "because of the ADA my civil rights are more protected than they use to be." The Americans with Disabilities Act is in its 25th year.
By Jon Schmitz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Improvements wrought by the Americans with Disabilities Act are all around us — sidewalk ramps on street corners, buses with wheelchair lifts, Braille on elevator keypads and transit signage, audible traffic signals, accessible building entrances.
But 25 years after the ADA was signed into law, significant obstacles remain for people with disabilities — in employment, housing and everyday mobility.
“When you walk around and see how many things people with disabilities can’t use, it’s kind of shocking,” said Karen Hoesch, executive director of Allegheny County’s ACCESS paratransit service for disabled and elderly people.
Still, she describes the ADA as “a sweeping civil rights law that required people overnight to change their way of thinking.”
Pittsburgh and Allegheny County will hold several events to mark the 25th anniversary of the law. On Monday, the National Council on Disability will meet at William Pitt Union at the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland. The independent federal agency advises the president, Congress and other agencies. Former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh will be honored for his work toward passage of the ADA, which was signed into law on July 26, 1990. A website established for the anniversary is expected to go live Monday at www.ada25pgh.org
Even with the law in place, disabled people and their advocates often have had to fight for compliance.
Pittsburgh attorney R. Bruce Carlson has filed more than 100 lawsuits in recent years against banks and retailers that were slow to comply. He also sued the Pittsburgh Parking Authority last year over pay stations that were too high to be used by disabled people.
Banks were sued for ATMs that lacked audio features for sight-impaired people, even more than a decade after the issue was first raised by advocates. Retailers, including several major national chains, were sued over point-of-sale stations that used touch screen technology requiring entry of PINs without tactile features for the blind.
Mr. Carlson, on behalf of client Robert Jahoda, an Ambridge man who lost his eyesight while in the eighth grade, also sued Redbox, the movie vending company, securing a settlement that requires it to make its machines ADA-compliant nationwide.
“I think we’re a lot better off than we were 25 years ago but there’s still a lot of distance to cover,” he said.
As a result of his legal actions, nearly all ATMs are in compliance and most retailers have made changes to accommodate people with disabilities, Mr. Carlson said. The parking authority lowered the pay stations.
The U.S. Justice Department has obtained dozens of consent decrees from private businesses, educational institutions and governments requiring them to improve accessibility. It reached agreement with Blair County last year to make polling places accessible and Chatham University in 2008 to bring its campus into compliance with ADA.
In Pittsburgh, people who use wheelchairs still find barriers to getting around. Buses are all equipped to accept disabled riders but sometimes getting to the bus stop is difficult or impossible, Ms. Hoesch said.
Port Authority’s bus fleet has been fully wheelchair accessible since 2003 and the authority “has been a national leader in providing services for people with disabilities far in excess of what’s required by the law,” she said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s policy requires that new construction and alterations be accessible and usable by disabled persons. When streets are rebuilt or repaved, the project area must be upgraded to meet the latest ADA standards, including curb ramps that have detectable warnings, small bumps on the sloped portion that are designed to serve as stop signs for sight-impaired pedestrians.
Thomas Sanchez, a program specialist for Community Living and Support Services, a Swissvale-based agency that aids people with disabilities, said he enjoys visiting the Strip District but finds daunting barriers — a lack of curb cuts and inaccessible restaurants.
“Restrooms are a menace everywhere,” he said.
Sergei Stemmler, who volunteers at CLASS, said he finds similar obstacles when he visits Waterworks Mall to see a movie. He said he sometimes has to maneuver his motorized wheelchair into the street because sidewalks lack ramps.
Erin Gannon of Bethel Park, an administrative assistant at Achieva, which offers numerous programs in support of disabled people, said she would like a bit more time to cross Carson Street on her way to and from the South Side headquarters.
Ms. Gannon has Down syndrome and a vision impairment and walks slowly, not always making it across at Station Square to the T before the “walk” cycle expires. She appreciates the audible signals at several intersections in the Downtown Cultural District and would like to see more intersections equipped with them.
Unemployment ‘a face-slapper’
The ADA has had minimal impact on chronic unemployment among people with disabilities.
The law’s author, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, acknowledged it in his farewell speech on the Senate floor in December:
“How many of us know that the unemployment rate among adult Americans with disabilities who want to work and can work is over 60 percent? Yes, you heard me right: Almost two out of three people with disabilities cannot find a job,” he said. “That is a blot on our national character.”
The unemployment rate “is an unbelievable number,” said Al Condeluci, executive director of CLASS. “It’s a face-slapper.”
Employment “affects everything,” Mr. Sanchez said. “I wouldn’t have what I have if it wasn’t for my job. I wouldn’t have my house. I wouldn’t have a car. I wouldn’t be a taxpayer. What kind of role model would I be [for his two children] if I didn’t work or I didn’t get out of the house?”
“I love my work,” Ms. Gannon said. When she sought office work 22 years ago, vocational rehabilitation specialists told her mother they couldn’t “get their foot in the door” at offices. “It’s gotten somewhat better,” said her mother, Nancy Gannon. “We’re getting more jobs in the community.”
Housing is another frontier on which progress has been limited. When Janis Thoma-Negley of New Kensington, a CLASS employee who uses a wheelchair, was house-hunting with her able-bodied husband, Realtors took them to homes with steps or other barriers, she said.
Accessibility “wasn’t a thought,” she said. “It just wasn’t in their mindset.”
The Pittsburgh area “is notoriously inaccessible by its hills and dales. Most homes are inaccessible,” Mr. Condeluci said. “The challenge is not just finding one. Being able to visit with other people becomes almost impossible. You’re in the community but you’re not really of the community.”
The city of Pittsburgh offers a tax credit of up to $2,500 to people who make home improvements to accommodate disabled visitors. The credit is available to people with or without disabilities.
ACCESS makes a difference
Allegheny County is home to one of the nation’s most respected paratransit services, ACCESS, which provided 1.6 million rides to 24,400 customers last year. Users make reservations at least a day in advance and are transported door-to-door, with stops to pick up or drop off other riders.
It was established in 1979, well before the ADA was enacted. But the law brought fundamental change, Ms. Hoesch said. Instead of operating as a standalone system, ACCESS now interfaces with the Port Authority’s fixed-route buses, opening new options for those who are able to ride buses.
“There was this whole generation of people who never used the bus because they couldn’t get on the bus,” she said.
While ACCESS trips are sometimes drawn out because of other riders being picked up and dropped off, users regard it as a godsend.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if we didn’t have ACCESS,” Ms. Thoma-Negley said. “I wouldn’t be sitting here working at this job. I wouldn’t have access in the community. I don’t think I would even be married.
“You can’t meet anybody if you’re sitting at home in your apartment,” she said. “I was able to establish friendships and meet people” and even used the service to travel to her first date with the man who became her husband.
The service operates from 6 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week. The minimum fare is $3.15 one-way, although many users get lower subsidized rates. The system, sponsored by Port Authority using seven contractors, has an on-time pickup rate — defined as anywhere from 10 minutes early to 20 minutes late — of 96.4 percent, Ms. Hoesch said.
Jon Schmitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1868.
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