I’m sure I didn’t take note when George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law 30 years ago. At the time, I was building my career as a lawyer, raising two daughters, and did not have a disability. Five years later, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Since 2004, I’ve argued my cases from a motorized wheelchair. Now when I see a video of Bush 41 at that signing ceremony on the White House lawn in 1990, or watch a documentary like Crip Camp on the early disability rights advocates, I get teary-eyed. The ADA has kept me going, thanks to its mandate of equality for people with disabilities, and its requirement for “reasonable accommodations.” I know I have the right to keep doing my work, and to ask for what I need. And, because the ADA requires new or altered spaces to meet accessible design standards, it is easier for me to navigate my world than it was for my dad, who was also mobility impaired.
But as any person with a disability knows, the ADA did not remove all of the barriers we face — not by a long shot. Here are just some examples of doors, real and metaphorical, that are still closed to us:
I can’t get into most houses by myself; I must be carried up the stairs. There is no ADA requirement that private homes be made accessible. We need that mandate, particularly for new construction.
Many buildings don’t have automatic door openers, and aren’t legally required to. I often have to wait for someone to come and let me in. Massachusetts regulations that, in some circumstances, would require those have been stalled in the bureaucracy for more than two years.
Existing buildings don’t have to be made accessible unless to do so is “readily achievable,” as it says in Title III of the ADA, which governs public accommodations and commercial facilities. But it seems that many businesses don’t even try to achieve this obligation. It’s one thing for me not to be able to access certain popular below-ground entertainment venues. But it’s another when even Boston hospitals can have rooms, including bathrooms, that aren’t accessible. Barriers to access also plague Boston restaurants, movie theaters, and some older MBTA stations.
The problems are especially acute in this region. The Northeast lags behind all other areas of the country in accessible housing, according to a US Department of Housing and Urban Development survey released in 2015, because our buildings tend to be so much older than in other regions.
Meanwhile, the need is massive and growing. As of 2017, nearly 12 percent of Boston’s residents had a disability, according to the city’s Disability Housing Task Force. And now the pandemic is making things worse, as more people become disabled. In addition, COVID-19 has killed thousands of seniors and people with disabilities who had been living in dense congregate housing. Of the 56,000 people living in nursing homes across Massachusetts, 10,000 to 20,000 could live independently if they had affordable and accessible housing available to them, Paul Spooner, executive director of the MetroWest Center for Independent Living, told the Milford Daily News.
Massachusetts lawmakers have already missed one chance to begin fixing our housing problems. On July 29, three days after the 30th anniversary of the ADA, the Legislature failed to adopt an amendment to a proposed economic development bill that would have expanded accessibility in housing and workplaces. Now, it has another chance: The ACCESSIBLE Massachusetts Act (H.4425), which would enhance the authority of the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board.
The Architectural Access Board’s regulations are part of the state’s building code, and therefore enforced by local building inspectors. The legislation has the potential to be a much more effective approach for creating accessible housing and workplaces than relying on federal civil rights lawsuits, which usually cannot be filed until after a building is finished.
As it is now, the board’s power to enact change is limited. The board can’t mandate that workplaces be made accessible (it’s perhaps not surprising that the US Census found that in 2018, only 37.7 percent of adults in Massachusetts with disabilities held jobs, a rate that put us in the bottom half of states). And when large older buildings, like mills and schools, are being converted into residential housing, the board cannot require contractors to include units that can be adapted into accessible apartments — even when state funds are being used to redevelop the building.
The ACCESSIBLE Massachusetts Act would repair the deficiencies in the board’s authority. Larger projects that convert any pre-1991 building would be required to make 95 percent of the units adaptable in the event of disability, thus expanding housing options for all. It would also allow the board to enforce accessibility in workplaces.
People with disabilities need allies in this fight. I remind “able-bodied” individuals that they, like me, could become disabled at any time. We must rally together to see that H.4425 is passed this session, which has now been extended until January.
The ADA was created to ensure that people with disabilities would have fuller lives and equal rights. This pandemic has laid bare the disparities that still exist and their devastating results. We must learn our lesson, and make the changes that will help us realize the unfulfilled promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Carol Steinberg is an attorney, disability activist, writer, and speaker based in Boston. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.