25 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, Lawrence residents continue battle for equality, access

It’s been 25 years since Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act — and two and a half decades later, some Lawrence residents with disabilities say equality and accessibility are still a battle.

The ADA is meant to protect those with disabilities by banning workplace discrimination, requiring that employers offer reasonable accommodations and setting accessibility standards for public buildings, roads and more.

Some with disabilities have grown up with the ADA in place with no reference to what life was like before its protections; others were at the forefront of the fight for its enactment. The following are the stories of three Lawrence residents who have unique perspectives on things people without disabilities might take for granted:

Dot Nary, 59

Dot Nary, Assistant Research Professor for Kansas University's Research and Training Center on Independent Living.

Born with spina bifida, a congenital defect of the spinal column, Dot Nary has had a lifelong devotion to disability rights.

Nary has been studying and advocating for equality and accessibility for decades.

After she began losing her ability to walk in her 20s, she started using a wheelchair at 30 and moved to New York to work for Centers for Independent Living. There, she developed programs for independent living services for public housing residents and conducted outreach for a study of adults with cerebral palsy. She fought for the ADA’s passage in 1990 and in the years that followed led community trainings on the new law.

Now, as an assistant research professor at KU’s Research and Training Center on Independent Living, she studies effective ways those with disabilities can continue to live full and independent lives.

“Life can be very high quality when it’s accessible,” Nary said. “We (with disabilities) have a lot to contribute. What a loss to the community when we think of a disability and we don’t think of that person who wants to contribute but just needs access.”

And those accessibility needs don’t stop at special parking spaces and automatic door entrances, Nary said. Accessibility issues are all around us, but often it takes someone with a disability to point out the problems.

Nary said the issues, found even in Lawrence, are sometimes to do with emerging fads like high-top tables at restaurants and high-set hotel beds. But others, she said, seem to have simply not updated their buildings to ADA standards in the two and a half decades since they were put in place.

“There’s a store in Lawrence that 25 years after the ADA still doesn’t have an accessible dressing room,” Nary said. “It just takes that willingness to do it. All entities should stop and think, ‘What can I do (to help)?'”

And while some changes like building reconstruction might be expensive, it’s not the huge, costly changes that are needed most of the time, Nary said. Some downtown stores with big steps leading up to their entrances simply put out portable ramps for patrons with mobility issues.

“We don’t want people to go out of business (making buildings accessible),” Nary said. “It just takes will, time and energy, but it’s well worth it.”

But above all else that came with the ADA, Nary said it’s the validation that the requirements gave those with disabilities that really made an impact.

“To feel validated as full citizens is really important. I want to eat at the same restaurants. I want to watch the same movies. I want to shop at the same stores,” Nary said.

And the accessibility that lets all of that come to fruition affects more than just those with disabilities, Nary said. The post-ADA world encourages us to embrace all differences.

“By making communities accessible, people can interact with each other, which breaks down stereotypes,” Nary said. “Now, we have higher recognition that everyone has something to offer and something to contribute.”

Lucy Crabtree, 32

Lucy Crabtree, communications specialist for CLASWeb, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at KU.

At 4 years old, Lucy Crabtree lost most of her hearing for an unknown reason. A doctor told her parents she’d never go past the third grade.

At 7 years old, the ADA was signed into law, ensuring she’d have “reasonable accommodations” like sign language interpreters for the rest of her schooling.

At 23, she graduated from MidAmerica Nazarene University.

Though she can’t remember a time without the ADA, Crabtree said she still recognizes the assistance the law has provided throughout her life. As a child, she went to deaf and hard-of-hearing classes to improve communication and learn life skills. In college, she requested note-takers in classes so as not to miss anything a professor was saying as she lip-read her lessons.

“It’s hard to imagine not being able to go to college and say, ‘This is what I need,'” Crabtree said.

Now on the job as a communications specialist for Kansas University, her employers provide what she needs to do her job effectively, despite her hearing impairment. At her request, the university gave her a caption telephone, which hooks up to an operator who types out what the person on the other line is saying.

Though Crabtree said the “ADA has done wonders,” there is still room for improvement. Those “reasonable accommodations” aren’t specifically defined by law, so Crabtree said it can at times be challenging to get treated like you need to be treated.

“They use the word ‘reasonable,’ but the corporation or school are the ones who decide what is ‘reasonable,'” Crabtree said. “It’s tricky to navigate. I don’t want to demand, but it gets weary to have to advocate for yourself.”

For example: Want to see the latest blockbuster? Well, if you’re hearing impaired, that’s going to be a bit difficult.

Crabtree said that most theaters have “assisted listening devices,” which essentially connect to a person’s hearing aids to amplify the sound. But for Crabtree and many others who are hard of hearing, it’s not so much that she can’t hear sounds; it’s that she doesn’t have what she calls “speech discrimination” to distinguish exactly what’s being said.

“Most of us need captioning (on movies), but hearing customers complain,” Crabtree said. “Sometimes theaters would provide ‘open captioning’ movies but would show them at weird times. It was considered a ‘reasonable accommodation,’ but it was only reasonable on paper, not in practice.”

Crabtree said that now she asks movie theaters for “individual captioning devices,” which stick in your cup holder and flash the words on a personal screen, but as with a lot of technology, there are glitches. Crabtree said she finds herself climbing over seated patrons in the theaters several times over to ask employees to fix the tools.

Though she comes across the occasional inequality and has friends who have had employment problems, she said that overall the ADA has made her life much easier to navigate. Still, she thinks that as a society we have much more to learn.

“I’m grateful there’s not as much to fight for, but we always need improvement,” Crabtree said. “I don’t know if the law needs to be changed, but people need to be educated (on disabilities).”

Ray Petty, 65

Ray Petty, Kansas Coordinator with the Great Plains ADA Center.

Though childhood polio restricted his mobility, Ray Petty is quite the athlete.

On the average day, he walks with a leg brace — but by night, you can find him shooting baskets or hitting home runs on accessible gym floors and baseball diamonds.

“I was 40 when I first started playing sports,” Petty said. “I played first on a softball team, and I was the guy running gimpy to first base.”

Happy to play, but discouraged that he wasn’t as fast as his able-bodied teammates, Petty said he asked to have a player run the bases for him.

“I have to hit a double to get to first base,” Petty said. “I’ve always been a frustrated athlete.”

But now, Petty is working to make sure others with mobility issues no longer feel frustrated as he did. He’s working with Annette Deghand, Lawrence Parks and Recreation director of special populations, to put together “a very forward-looking program on fitness and disability,” including programming for wheelchair sports.

Without accessible sports, “kids (in wheelchairs) end up sitting on the sidelines,” Petty said. “They lose the opportunity to develop upper-body strength and a teamwork mentality.”

When he’s not in on a game, Petty works as the Kansas coordinator for the ADA’s Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center for the Great Plains. In his work, he helps businesses, organizations and schools meet ADA accessibility standards, but he said the importance of accessibility extends beyond the confines of classrooms and businesses.

“Programming is important. Kids that don’t get into physical fitness stuff get obese, or diabetes,” Petty said. “That’s all stuff that can be avoided with extracurriculars.”

Plus, with accessibility and disability programming, being “disabled” starts to lose its stigma as the subgroup becomes more visible, Petty said. For example, Petty said the University of Missouri has a competitive wheelchair basketball team in which players can letter, and even work to make it to the national competition level.

“Imagine what it’s like to have 18- to 20-year-olds in wheelchairs lettering. It opens up a whole new realm of accessibility,” Petty said. “It’s wrong we don’t have a wheelchair team at KU when Mizzou has nothing to do with basketball and has one.”

If you are interested in enrolling a child or yourself in wheelchair sports, Petty encourages you to contact him at raypetty@aol.com or Deghand at (785) 832-7920 or adeghand@ci.lawrence.ks.us.