There was a time when crossing the street in Lawrence could be an arduous task for Bob Mikesic.
"As a person who uses a wheelchair, not every intersection had curb ramps," Mikesic said last week.
The lack of ramps made street curbs into insurmountable obstacles for Mikesic.
"I spent a lot of time zig-zagging from sidewalk to the street, in and out of driveways," he said. "When there weren't curb ramps on the intersection, I couldn't always stay on the sidewalk."
It's not as much of a problem these days. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 sparked changes in new building designs and remodeling that changed the landscape for Mikesic and millions of others - giving them better access to sidewalks, rest rooms, parking spaces and classrooms that most people take for granted.
"It's from when you pull up and park at the building to how you get in the building to how you use the building," said Tom Bracciano, who oversees ADA renovations in the Lawrence school district.
"It's given people with disabilities the same civil rights everybody else had," said Tanya Dorf, executive director of Independence Inc., a nonprofit agency that serves about 1,000 Lawrence residents with disabilities.
The act became law 15 years ago this week, and local activists plan to celebrate with a party Tuesday afternoon at the headquarters of Independence Inc., 2001 Haskell Ave.
Accessibility requirements were scattershot, at best, when the act - commonly known as ADA - was passed in 1990 with significant backing from then-Sen. Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican who lost the use of his right arm in World War II.
As a result, people with disabilities were often segregated. Bracciano said that in the Lawrence school district, young students with disabilities were usually sent to a "cluster site" at Hillcrest School, which was better able to accommodate wheelchairs and other devices.
"That was somewhat discriminatory, when you took all the (disabled) students and put them into a certain spot," Bracciano said.
The act guaranteed access to jobs, transportation and public accommodations - including schools, parks and pools.
After the act was passed, local governments began reviewing their facilities to determine where they had accessibility problems. But retrofitting existing buildings - to include ramps, elevators and other accommodations - loomed as an expensive proposition.
In the Lawrence school district, Bracciano said, officials initially chose to forgo many of those expenses in favor of "program accessibility." If students and parents couldn't go to music class, say, then the music class was brought to them.
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The emphasis has changed in recent years, Bracciano said, to making the buildings more accessible.
"We feel all areas of the building should be open to all students," he said.
Over the past 15 years, new city pools have been built with "zero-depth entry" areas for wheelchair users beating the heat, water fountains around town have been built closer to the ground, and playgrounds have been remodeled so that all children have a chance to play on the swingset.
"The architects now, it's just taken for granted," City Manager Mike Wildgen said last week. "You have to design for access issues."
But change hasn't always come quickly. Cordley School is in the midst of renovations prompted by an ADA complaint filed by former school board candidate Brent Garner. The playground is being made safer and rest rooms are being remodeled. Districtwide, Bracciano said, ADA renovations will cost about $96,000 this summer.
Still on tap: an elevator to transfer students to upper floors of Cordley, parts of which were built in 1921. Until the district can afford that, widely attended classes such as art and P.E. will remain on the ground floor.
"Quite honestly, back then, they could've cared less whether you got in or out of a building," Bracciano said of the building's original designers. "It's all stairs."
'How life is lived'
ADA-inspired renovations aren't always second nature. When the Eldridge Hotel, 701 Mass., was being remodeled earlier this year, builders realized late in the process that they had neglected to create accessible rooms. They quickly corrected the oversight after meeting with Mikesic, an advocacy coordinator at Independence Inc., and Ray Petty, who provides technical assistance with the Great Plains ADA Center in Columbia, Mo.
The 15th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act will be celebrated from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the headquarters of Independence Inc., 2001 Haskell Ave. The public is invited.
"There's basically some minimal things you have to look out for and make sure are done, but it really isn't difficult at all," said Casey Stewart, who was the Eldridge Hotel job superintendent for Gene Fritzel Construction.
"They didn't need to be persuaded," Mikesic said. "They were ready to focus on what needed to be improved."
Despite the successes, advocates for people with disabilities say there is still work to be done.
"The unemployment rate is still hovering around 70 percent for people with significant disabilities," Mikesic said, "and that's where it was before ADA."
But if businesses and building owners were initially fearful about the cost of ADA renovations, Dorf said, that seems to have given way to genuine interest in making changes.
"I think it's not as intimidating," she said. "I think people realize that's how life is lived now."
By the numbers
37.5 million Number of Americans older than 5 with at least one disability.
42 percent, 34 percent Percentage of working-age men and women, respectively, who are employed.
847,000 Number of people ages 18 to 34 who have disabilities and are enrolled in school - 5 percent of all students in this age group.
2.5 million Number of veterans who received compensation for service-related disabilities as of 2003.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau