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'Reducing barriers': Americans with Disabilities Act marks 20 years

Published: Monday, July 26 2010 1:02 a.m. MDT

Dale Taylor, a member of the Utah Valley Woodcarvers Club, works on a piece of art in his shop on Thursday.

Jason Olson, Deseret News

PROVO — A trap for Dale Taylor need only be a couple of inches high. A street corner with no curb cuts is as effective a barrier as slamming a wall down in front of his wheelchair. It stops him.

It's also not something he encounters much these days, thanks in large part to the Americans with Disabilities Act — which is 20 years old Monday.

The landmark law changed the world for those who needed it in three primary areas, said Tracy Justesen, managing attorney of the Disability Law Center in Salt Lake City. It provided public accommodation in restaurants, movie theaters and other venues. It made public transportation more accessible and user-friendly. And it opened doors so that people with disabilities have a fair chance at getting or keeping a job.

Justesen had more than once seen restaurants tell people with disabilities they should please leave because it made other customers uncomfortable, he said. The act put an end to that.

Taylor said many lawmakers opposed the measure originally.

"I just don't think they know how much they've helped those that have a disability. No curb cut is a major challenge," he said, describing getting to the end of a block, only to find he had to go back and find a driveway, then travel in the street.

Some called it one more federal mandate with no money, which Justesen said is the wrong view. The civil rights view, that people with disabilities "deserve and should be treated as equal to other people," is better.

"It was not meant to level the planet," Justesen said. "We understand there are natural barriers and things that will always be there."

What's important, he said, is making things accessible in the ways they can be. After 20 years, it's part of the country's fabric. Once a retrofit, it is now built into the planning process. It means people who are blind can read elevator buttons in Braille or hear the crosswalk light change. Someone who's deaf can see the light flash for a fire alarm, for example.

The bill focuses on abilities, not disabilities, said Sandra Curcio, director of the Central Utah Center for Independent Living, which has a weeklong celebration planned to mark ADA's 20th birthday.

"The ADA expanded opportunities for Americans with disabilities by reducing barriers, changing perceptions and increasing full participation in community life," Curcio said.

The activities include an art exhibit Wednesday featuring works by artists who have disabilities, including Taylor, who does intarsia.

He has muscular dystrophy. The symptoms first appeared about 40 years ago, in his late teens. His arms would get terribly fatigued; he could hardly lift them to comb his hair. For almost a decade after he was diagnosed, Taylor worked at the prison, but he had to retire after the degenerative disease weakened his legs.

The woodworker, now 62, has made everything from little animated bears to flying eagles, horses, cougars and others. He treasures a picture of the day he gave Larry H. Miller an intarsia Jazz Bear.

When Taylor talks about the ADA, he speaks of simple things, like using a public restroom. But they weren't so simple before ADA led to wider stalls in the bathroom, ushered in stores with ramps or elevators and created the curb cuts that let him travel and so much more, he said.

e-mail: lois@desnews.com

Twitter: Loisco

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