The Unfinished Business of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Twenty-five years later, it is now safe to say that the Americans with Disabilities Act has been a huge, undeniable success. It should be regarded as the most significant accomplishment of President George H.W. Bush’s career, even though he can’t claim complete credit. It transformed the entire universe for people like me, who were born with cerebral palsy, and millions of others like me, people of all ages and types forced to negotiate the world differently than everyone else.

But as transformational as the ADA has been, it is now facing a quarter-life crisis. If we are to ensure its continued effectiveness and its central promise of expanding opportunities for those of us who rely on accommodations in our daily lives, we must face some difficult truths.

Today, almost every American, at some point, could probably qualify for one of those prized handicapped license plates, and that’s because, during the last 25 years, the term “disabled” has been appropriated and, yes, abused by perfectly able-bodied people. For some, “disabled” isn’t really a diagnosis; it’s a justification for bad habits, temporary injuries and illnesses, and, far too often, sheer laziness.

It’s not always easy to pinpoint what, exactly, we mean by “disabled,” because, perhaps ironically, we’re asking the word to do far more than it is capable of doing.

And this, I contend, is the worst unintended consequence of the Americans with Disabilities Act: Its benefits are too easily exploited, and as a result, the very people the law was intended to help are often still shut out. For people like me, people who rely on those handicapped parking spots to access basic things like school, work, the grocery store, and the neighborhood restaurant, America’s constantly growing definition of “disability” can be the source of enormous frustration. I recognize, of course, even though I rely on my handicapped license plate to make life accessible for me, I’m not more entitled to a prime parking spot than someone else with a disability. But that has almost never been an issue.

The problem is: Too many physicians are too willing to fill out the requisite paperwork for a handicapped plate or a hang tag for anyone who walks into their door and asks for it. We now allow people to self-identify as disabled without ever really being diagnosed as disabled, in the same way too many doctors are willing to dole out powerful prescription drugs to patients who simply want them but don’t really need them.

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Earlier this year, I was given free tickets to my first-ever NASCAR event at the Texas Motor Speedway. I am not a NASCAR fan. I’d never even watched a single race on television. Everything I know about the sport, I learned from the movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. But I thought it’d be fun to bring along three friends and soak in the spectacle.

We showed up an hour before the gates opened, four hours before the race would even begin, and as soon as we pulled up, I asked an attendant to direct me to the handicapped parking section. It was, easily, the biggest handicapped parking section I’d ever seen in my life. Everything is bigger in Texas, right?

And four hours prior to the race, every single handicapped parking spot at Texas Motor Speedway had been taken. I decided to snag a VIP spot and hope that I wouldn’t get towed.

I can walk on my own, but it’s not easy for me to walk long distances. Whenever I go to a big conference or a concert or a sporting event or even the airport, I will usually request a wheelchair. If I know the place won’t have a wheelchair, I’ll rent a little motorized scooter, which has saved my life more than a couple of times. But nine times out of ten, the venue is smart enough to keep a stockpile of spare wheelchairs for people like me. Even if it’s not required in the letter of the ADA, this type of accommodation is certainly the spirit of the law, and in my experience, most venues get that.

The Texas Motor Speedway was easily the largest sporting venue I’ve ever been to in my life. It seats more than 181,000 people. It’s sprawling, massive. And like I said, it also has the biggest handicapped parking section I’d seen in a long time, which was already filled to capacity by the time I arrived. Yet despite this, I was eventually told by a security guard that, after looking everywhere, they couldn’t find a wheelchair for me. It wasn’t that all of their wheelchairs had been taken by other patrons; they didn’t even have one. They’d never had one.

My point here isn’t to criticize the venue, though they should certainly become more accommodating. When I was told they didn’t have a chair I could use, I was more baffled than frustrated: Directly in front of me was a sea of cars parked in the handicapped section. How was it possible that I was the only person there whose disability didn’t confine him to a chair but still needed a rental or a loaner at massive event? I’ve been to dozens and dozens of concerts and football games, and I’ve never before had much of a problem. Most places anticipate folks like me.

Of the 100,000 or so people in attendance, I only counted a dozen using a wheelchair or an electric scooter. And there’s really only one conclusion to draw from this and from my long-winded anecdote: The vast and overwhelming majority of folks parked in the handicapped parking spots that day probably had no business being there.

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Perhaps this should not be too surprising. Four years ago, The Dallas Morning News published a provocative report about people fraudulently using handicapped hangtags in order to score free and prime parking in its downtown:

Paul Curington, program manager of parking enforcement for the Dallas Police Department, said when a third to half of the cars on some streets have the familiar wheelchair symbol hanging form the mirror, it’s hard to believe they’re all legitimate.

“It’s hard to imagine that out of 50 parking meters surrounding a construction site that 30 of them have handicapped placards,” he said.

Dallas isn’t an outlier though. The problem is nationwide.

And let me be abundantly clear: Parking is only one of its symptoms.

At its core, the Americans with Disabilities Act is about providing reasonable accommodations to better ensure people like me and people in wheelchairs can negotiate our shared, public, built environment.

When I was in sixth grade, my public school didn’t have an elevator, and because of the ADA, they had to build one so that kids like me would be able to get to class upstairs without killing themselves by climbing up and down those stairs. It also means that whenever the government ever decides to build sidewalks, they need to make sure folks in wheelchairs can use them. It means businesses- like restaurants and hotels- need bathrooms that can be used by people in wheelchairs or with mobility problems. And yes, it’s also about parking, and even though I don’t own a single handicapped parking spot on the planet, whenever someone who doesn’t need it takes one of those spots, I consider that theft.

The ADA is noble and righteous, but even after 25 years, there remains a bunch of unfinished business.

First, though, we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that a handicapped hang tag should be a consolation prize for a minor injury or doled out for a diagnosis that does not affect mobility (recognizing, of course, that there are also purely intellectual challenges that affect mobility). It’s not a family heirloom, and it’s not something you can share or loan out.

Disabilities aren’t always easy to see or easy to understand, and there’s no possible way to adequately rank or scale them. Everyone is different. Children with severe autism, for example, may look completely normal to a stranger, yet they may often demand even more accommodations than someone with paraplegia or muscular dystrophy.

Again, our problem, 25 years later, has nothing to do with our understanding of what it truly means to be disabled. If anything, our understanding has dramatically advanced. Our problem is that although the ADA has provided opportunities and accommodations for disabled Americans who need them the most, its benefits are too often exploited and abused by those who need them the least.

Recently, on Salon, Annie Zaleski, a freelance writer who, like me, lives with an almost identical type of cerebral palsy, wrote about her experience at music festivals, something to which I can completely empathize (Pro-tip: For multi-day festivals, Annie, bite the bullet and rent a scooter. They’re usually around $125, but it’s worth it). Annie’s piece is great, and I recommend you read it. But it’s not just about how small or shitty the handicapped seating section is for people like us; it’s also about how frequently it’s just completely hijacked by people who clearly could and should be somewhere else.

And that also may be hard to understand if you’re not really disabled and if you only bought tickets in the section because you knew the seats were spectacular: Folks who do this, just like the parking space frauds, are stealing from people like me. It can really ruin the entire experience. If you prefer to stand the whole time at a concert, why on earth would you sit in the handicapped section?

But it happens. All of the time.

Last Wednesday, I attended an event featuring the Dalai Lama. This time, I was smart enough to bring a wheelchair I park at home, and my mother, brother, and I were able to sit together in great seats in the handicapped section. An older woman pulled up a folding chair next to us; the view was great. When her friends walked over to congratulate her on her awesome seat, she said, “Oh, I just took it!” It wasn’t hers.

About fifteen minutes later, shortly before the event began, a young man with muscular dystrophy rolled in with his girlfriend. Clearly, that was supposed be their spot, and the lady had just defiantly perched herself there. But she said nothing. He had to sit awkwardly in his wheelchair behind her, sometimes contorting his head for a view.

I would have said something, and so would’ve my brother. But then, the Dalai Lama came out on stage. “We are all the same,” he said. “Me, you, the insects, all the same.”

Not really, but this time, we decided to heed his advice. It wasn’t easy.