The National ADA Symposium helps people get a better understanding of the rules and that accessible doesn’t always mean usable.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed 25 years ago and while people with disabilities have better access to things such as businesses, public transportation and sports venues, there’s still more work to do. Especially when it comes to making sure places such as a hotel room aren’t just accessible, but usable.
The annual National ADA Symposium helps bring that idea into focus for governments, businesses and others. Hosted this past May in Atlanta by the ADA National Networks Great Plains and Southeast chapters, the symposium provides current, practical and useful information on ADA guidelines, along with implementation strategies and best practices.
“What we wanted to do was create an environment of learning in multiple formats,” says Jim de Jong, executive director of the Great Plains ADA Center. “By that, I mean you can go to a lecture and hear what the rules and regulations are, but then we wanted to hear from people that actually implemented those.”
There’s More to It
The symposium helps people learn the rules and regulations for things such as wheelchair ramps, but it also helps them understand that just because a ramp “meets the letter of the law” doesn’t mean it’s usable.
“... We have a very basic understanding [of accessibility] and we know how to measure, but there’s more to it than that. There’s the understanding of how someone is really functioning,” says Lisa Reburn, PhD, who helped develop an online ADA professional training and certification program at the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB).
The UAB program graduated its first 13 students in July and Reburn says it’s very focused on “real life” and “real people.” It’s helping the students “see more things that are barriers” and to “think differently.”
Also helping people and businesses think differently by looking at how someone with a disability actually functions and uses accessible features are groups such as the National Center on Accessibility (NCA) at Indiana University.
Executive director Sherill York, PhD, says a ramp installed at one building the NCA was consulting on met the minimum requirements, but had many issues. She says the two-way ramp was at the maximum slope, had a curve and was carpeted.
Great Plains ADA (Americas with Disabilities Act) Center Executive Director Jim de Jong, seated, speaks with attendees at May’s National ADA Symposium during the opening reception at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
“It was like, ‘OK, you’re meeting the letter of the law, but think about how people are actually going to use that ramp,’ ” York says. “If you’re at the bottom of that ramp and you’ve got all this traffic coming up and down it, someone might have to stop midway up that ramp ... It’s a perfect storm.”
York says educating people on exactly how someone with a disability interacts with an environment becomes an “A-ha moment” for them. Moments such as that can be difficult for some businesses to reach until a problem is pointed out by groups such as NCA.
A good example de Jong mentions is when his group was working with a major hotel chain that had switched to a more plush bed in its rooms. The hotel was trying to attract a specific type of client, but the higher bed made it difficult for people using wheelchairs and some others to transfer onto it.
“I said there’s regulations for your rooms and you’re making them accessible, but there’s nothing that regulates the bed height,” de Jong says. “What’s the idea of an accessible room if I can’t get to the bed? I can go to the bathroom. I can comb my hair. I can watch TV. But I can’t get in the bed. That is absolutely illogical.”
After working with the ADA National Network, the hotel chain agreed to use a shorter bed height.
Part of A Community
The symposium provides an opportunity to avoid situations such as those by bringing together the people and places making accessibility decisions with the people who they’ll affect.
This year’s event featured more than 700 people representing government, banks, convenience stores, amusement parks and more. They attended 75 sessions over three days covering topics such as ADA basics, elevators, public rights of way, outdoor recreation and emergency preparedness that included an appearance by zombies.
Attendees also heard updates from the Department of Justice and met with each other, which is a key point of the conference according to de Jong.
“Many people here [at the symposium] with disabilities are trying to say ‘you may not have interacted with me before, but interact with me now and learn and see my abilities and realize that I am a contributing citizen. I’m a part of a community,’ ” de Jong says.
Todd Kemery and Stephen Thell from the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Minnesota Chapter and Debra Freed from the PVA New England Chapter attended the symposium. The advocacy director in Minnesota, Kemery says it’s promising to see the symposium so well attended.
“What’s encouraging for us to see is the amount of city, county and state officials that are all coming and listening to these ADA standards and guidelines, then going back to their communities and incorporating what they’ve learned here,” Kemery says.
It’s also encouraging to de Jong who says 100% of participants at the 2014 symposium said they went home and implemented what they learned at the conference. He says including many different people in the event is key to its success.
“We didn’t want this [symposium] to just be a group of engineers or advocates,” de Jong says. “We wanted it to look like society is so that what you’re learning here can be applied to your community that looks the same as where you learned it.”
It’s About Everybody
Society and community are aspects of the ADA that are sometimes forgotten amid all the talk on accessibility and usability, but they’re important elements not lost at the symposium.
Places such as stores, restaurants or sports venues that are accessible and usable are also considered to be “inclusive.” The idea being that everyone of all abilities and ages can be together and have a similar experience.
“It isn’t just about wheelchairs anymore,” Kemery says. “We’ve got the baby boomers that are going to be retiring and that just puts more pressure on the small percentage of things such as hotel rooms that are ADA compliant. We want people to understand that it’s about everybody.”
Families and social groups that include people with disabilities and/or older folks with mobility issues want to be together when they dine out. Sending people who use a wheelchair to a ramp that goes in one entrance apart from everyone else isn’t acceptable to many groups.
“Something isn’t just affecting one person, it’s affecting a whole group of people and if that’s not acceptable to have the same experience with the family, the group may decide no one is going to have that experience,” York says.
De Jong believes it’s those types of attitudes that are helping to make the ADA more than just a set of rules and regulations on how steep to make a ramp or how wide to make a doorway. He sees a changing perception that true accessibility helps everyone.
“I think we’re finally starting to realize in society that instead of the person being the issue, it’s the environment that’s preventing the person from getting in some place,” de Jong says. “That’s part of the true goal of the ADA and the symposium of making a welcoming environment.”
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