On the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act's passage, there's still plenty of work to do to make the world equally accessible to all, disability advocates said.
On Tuesday, the Daniel Boone Regional Library, the League of Women Voters of Columbia-Boone County and the Columbia Disabilities Commission teamed up to host a forum about the ADA. First passed in 1990 following decades of work by disability advocates and activists, the ADA is a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on disability.
"Something that really impressed me was the 'Crawl to the Capitol,' where individuals with disabilities climbed the steps to the nation's capitol to emphasize the need for accessibility features," said John Bowders of the Columbia Disabilities Commission.
Over the years, it's been updated and expanded through additional acts, such as 2002's Help America Vote Act and the 2008 ADA Amendments Act. The latter clarified the definition of disability, stating a person is disabled if they have or have record of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of life's major activities, even if that impairment is episodic, in remission or doesn't currently substantially impact a major life activity.
"There was a case ruled that a disabled person who used a prosthetic was not qualified for ADA protection because of the mitigating measure," commission member Rene Powell said of the need for the 2008 act. "Having epilepsy that can be medicated in some instances but not always successfully, that meant I could be interpreted as successfully medicated by a court, whether I was or not. That was when they updated the definition of disability."
Even so, 30 years later, people with disabilities still struggle to access many services, locations and other features of daily life — even those that should've become accessible to them through the ADA's requirements. Plenty of businesses and other entities simply haven't worked to meet ADA standards, the commission said.
Lydia Olmsted, a recent graduate of Rocktree High School in Columbia, is blind and deaf in one ear, among other sensory impairments. She relies on screenreading software to navigate the internet an important part of 21st Century life.
"The main challenge I experience is that some websites are not screenreader accessible — the talking software is not able to read aloud certain portions of the site because of the web design," she said. "It might say 'button' or 'link' instead of saying what that button or link is."
Powell pointed out the ADA predates the modern internet, and was updated to require that website include features to make them accessible.
"The ADA came first, so the internet should've been inclusive," Powell said. "But it didn't go that way."
Olmsted uses a cane to navigate obstacles and braille to read writing that isn't on a computer screen.
"One thing that's ongoing work in the Columbia school system is getting proper braille signage installed on classroom and restroom doors, things of that nature," she said.
And even after the passage of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, many useful accommodations still aren't available at all polling places. In Columbia, Olmsted uses voting machines that read the ballot aloud to her, allowing her to vote without assistance.
"There aren't many talking voting machines always available at polling places," she said. "As a result, people who are blind, sometime when the machines are not available, have to rely on someone to fill out the ballot for them, which of course is a privacy issue."
Bowders became disabled later in life when, at the age of 57, he was injured and paralyzed from the chest down. That was six years ago.
"The prior 57 years I was able-bodied and very mobile and very active physically, so it came as a big shock to learn to live my life in a chair," he said. "Prior to my injury, I thought Columbia was one of the flattest places on earth. After my injury and having to motor around on my manual chair I was very glad it was flat — but it was not that flat. I quickly and continuously have gained a much different perspective."
As a professor of civil engineering at the University of Missouri, he's interested in building a more accessible world.
"When we design facilities for the least-abled individuals, it's many other individuals who end up benefiting from that, whether that's designing simple things such as ramps instead of stairs — there are many people who can negotiate a ramp a lot better than they can do stairs," he said.
Disability advocates refer to that as "disability gain" or the "curb-cut effect." The classic example is curb-cuts on sidewalks. Not only do they make curbs easier to navigate for people with visual and mobility impairments, they also benefit people pushing strollers.
"My goal is to push Columbia to engineer things in a manner that includes everyone," Bowders said.
There are challenges, though — "universal design"and other accommodations are never truly universal, because different individuals with different disabilities have different needs. For example, a blind person may need to bring their seeing eye dog on a flight in order to safely navigate the airport, while a person on the same flight with a severe allergy to dogs might be at risk because of that dog's presence.
Bowders and the rest of the commission hope for and are working toward a world that isn't merely accessible to people with disabilities, but also welcoming.
For example, Bowders said, many of Columbia's restaurants are technically accessible — but only by wheeling through an alley to a back entrance or even navigating through the restaurant's kitchen, instead of going through the front door with the rest of the patrons.
"One phrase I picked up lately is that it may be technically accessible, but not necessarily welcoming," Powell said. "There's a real distinction between the two. It feels like you're not necessarily welcomed into a place if there are stairs."
To learn more about the history of the Disability Rights Movement, the commission suggested viewing the 2020 documentary "Crip Camp." It's currently available on Netflix and for free, with ads, on Netflix's YouTube channel.