I have been with the Rocky Mountain ADA Center for almost two years. In my time, I've learned the importance of giving a voice to individuals with disabilities who need accessibility. While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) exists to ensure equal access to people with disabilities, we can so focused on minute details that we overlook the intent and spirit of the law. We operate from places of ignorance and fear and lose all semblance of common sense.
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Haben Girma for the Rocky Mountain ADA Center podcast, Adventures in Accessibility. If you aren’t familiar, Haben is the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law. During our conversation, Haben shared her experience gaining access to the menus at her undergraduate college. The menus changed daily and were posted outside the cafeteria. Because Haben is deafblind, she was not able to access them as posted, so she requested that the cafeteria staff email them to her. Using this method, she would be able to read them through her screen reader.
The staff didn’t recognize, or wasn’t aware, that providing the menus to students in alternate formats is a requirement of the ADA. The ADA requires the use of auxiliary aids and services to provide effective communication. Haben recalled that the staff actually said they were “too busy” to email them daily. And she should be grateful for the days they did remember to email her the menus.
It was only after Haben told the College that she would sue them, that they looked at their policy. It was only then that they made appropriate modifications to their practices so that all students who were blind or low vision would have access to the daily menus. It was this fear-based approach that finally affected change. And, this change would prove to be important for someone other than Haben. The next year, when another blind student started at the College, he did not have to fight for access to the cafeteria menus.
Now, I certainly expect that, when I read a menu, it’s effectively communicated to me. Don’t you? Imagine not being able to read what is being served and then, when the meal is on your plate, not being able to see what it is. Now imagine this happening at every meal you are served. If the staff at Haben’s college had used common sense, perhaps this same scenario would have bubbled up. If the person who took her request had considered what it would be like to have no idea what options were on the menu, perhaps they would have realized that emailing a menu would provide Haben an equal opportunity to enjoy her meals.
If more of us could take a moment to understand why accessibility matters, we would afford individuals with disabilities equal opportunity to participate in many aspects of life. If the person who parks in the access aisle of an accessible parking space took a minute to think about why the access aisle exists, maybe they would choose not to block the aisle. If the person who fakes a service animal because they don’t want to pay the pet fee at a hotel stopped to think about how that might adversely affect a person with a legitimate service animal, perhaps individuals with disabilities would feel more comfortable traveling.
There’s no arguing that the ADA is a complex law. It’s multifaceted and, as we say, depends on the situation. It’s not easy. But if everyone took the time to remember that the intent of the law is to integrate individuals with disabilities to the maximum extent possible – and exercised common sense – the ADA would be easier to implement.