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On the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Lehigh Valley is more accessible than ever -- but not there yet
Morning Call - 8/3/2022
A few years ago, Susan Schaffer brought a manual wheelchair to an event in Lancaster, encouraging residents to take it for a spin while making sure they knew it wasn't a toy.
When kids tried it out, she asked "Are you any different?" and they responded, "No."
"I hope to turn the tables and help people understand disability by experiencing it in related activities," said Schaffer. "I always promote awareness programs to the community."
Schaffer, a Lehigh Valley native, has used a wheelchair for the majority of her life. She was born with arthrogryposis, an affliction of the joints. She has for decades traveled the state for her program, Disability Dialogue, which aims to empower people with disabilities while educating the community.
"Because once you start a dialogue, it's usually downhill from there," she said. "People realize that you have a brain, and you have [similar] interests. Then you can find some common ground and not just worry about the disability."
July 26 marked 32 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law requiring equal opportunity for people with disabilities, was signed by President George H.W. Bush. In the decades since, a lot of positive changes have been made across the Lehigh Valley, advocates and officials said, but there's still a long way to go.
The status quo
Amy Beck is the executive director of the Lehigh Valley Center for Independent Living, a nonprofit organization with a majority disabled staff intended to provide services for disabled people such as advocacy, directing people to resources and education for independent living.
As a wheelchair user, she said the Valley and the country at large have made great strides toward being more accessible and inclusive for disabled people. She said examples have included increased accessibility for local playgrounds, movie theaters like the Movie Tavern and their seats, and colleges such as Muhlenberg and DeSales making their campuses traversable and classrooms accommodating for mentally disabled people.
A particular area for improvement, Beck added, is disabled people in the workforce. She said employers are more reluctant to hire disabled people due to the perceived burden of accommodating them, either with an increase in sick days or medical insurance. This can lead to "sobering results," including a depressed income, a hindered ability to afford medicine and impacting where one can live.
What employers get wrong about this, she said, is that most accommodations for disabled employees are very affordable and can be as small as one tenth the cost of hiring someone else. One of the easiest accommodations is flexible scheduling, such as varying start times for a work day or spreading breaks throughout the day.
"Employers who have [hired disabled people] ... typically find that the whole workforce is better, and better balanced, when there's people with disabilities there," Beck said.
Recent state, federal efforts
In a recent news release, federal officials at the Department of Justice, the agency tasked with enforcing the law, said the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and opioid epidemic have "exacted a steep toll on many people with disabilities and shed light on the continued urgency of ADA enforcement."
"The Americans with Disabilities Act embodies a national promise to eliminate discriminatory barriers and support full participation, community integration, independent living and economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities," said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. "We will continue using this bedrock civil rights law to eliminate barriers and safeguard the rights of people with disabilities across the country."
On Monday, PennDOT announced those with a permanent persons with disabilities parking placard can now renew it, receive a replacement or update their address online.
"This new online service is an added convenience for customers who need accessible parking," said Kurt Myers, the agency's deputy secretary for driver and vehicles services. "The commonwealth also benefits from savings from costs associated with mailing products and notices that a product has been renewed."
In Lehigh, Northampton counties
At the Lehigh County government, General Services Director Rick Molchany said, "[The ADA] is built into our normal course of business. Since the mid-90s, when the ADA was approved by Congress, we all took the steps that needed to be taken so it's seamless now, in terms of us reengineering to accommodate."
One example of improving compliance, he said, is spending roughly $225,000 to create an alternative entrance to the Lehigh Valley Zoo. The project is expected to be completed this summer, Molchany said.
Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure said the ADA was "one of the most transformative, bipartisan pieces of legislation to ever be proposed."
The county has recently completed a handful of projects with the ADA in mind, including the Plainfield Township Pavilion, which included the construction of an outdoor pavilion with a concrete pad, ADA parking spaces and an accessible route.
Also finished last year was the Palmer Township'sRiverview Park rehabilitation project. For that, officials realigned, paved and upgraded the upper entrance and parking lot in the park to include ADA accessible spaces, markings and signage.
"I think everyone in this society has taken their obligations under the ADA very seriously, because we all understand as the lives of our friends, neighbors and loved ones who are disabled are improved, our own lives improve," McClure said. "And at the county level, we are investing widely in ADA accessibility across the length and breadth of the county."
A law with few teeth
There are issues with the ADA, advocates said, like the lack of standardized data about changes made, as well as confusion from residents about enforcement.
The gap is especially wide considering there are more than 2.6 million adults in Pennsylvania with a disability -- that's one in every four adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As The Morning Call was working on this story, reporters learned there is no centralized database for ADA projects, their cost and timelines. Instead, it's up to residents to alert businesses or facilities when they are not in compliance.
"There's not very much teeth in the law," Schaffer said. "So, I think that disability is getting overlooked. And I think that people are falling through the cracks."
According to Beck, this leads to a "Wild West" where local municipalities have a wide range of compliance and standards.
"There is no ADA police," she said.
'Accessibility can mean many things'
Recently, Schaffer held a Disability Dialogue event at The Udder Bar in Allentown. The event included information on local recreational programs, booklets on empowerment and navigating employment and disability etiquette. There was also trivia, focused on different types of disabilities.
While residents might consider accessibility to be an entirely physical pursuit, residents with different abilities may need specialized support or accommodations.
Kimberly Resh, founder and program director of Nazareth-based Mikayla's Voice, said "accessibility can mean many things."
"I think people don't think about it very often, [but] because of what I do, because I feel very privileged to know people who have lots of different challenges, and see just how capable they are with the right accessibility and adaptation," Resh said.
Different types of accessibility, like visual, auditory or motor, call for different adaptations.
For example, Resh said, an audio descriptor at a play or a guide at a museum would narrate, providing visual descriptions for those who are blind and visually impaired. Sign language interpreters can make events more accessible for those with hearing loss.
The nonprofit has so far published four books, authored by children for children. Resh said they worked with area organizations and advocates to publish them in braille, as well as an audio describer for the pictures.
"That's a good example [that] there's so much out there right now that can be done," Resh said. " ... People with disabilities don't want to be treated any differently. They may need help getting in the building, but once they're there, they should be treated the same as everybody else and they're not always."
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