As the civil rights movement swept across America in the '60s and early '70s, another battle was being waged against a very specific form of oppression.
This battle was quieter. It didn't dominate the news every night. No one rioted, no one was killed, no buildings or flags were burned. But a group of people demanded their rights and brought a major problem to the front of lawmakers' minds.Those people were the disabled, particularly those confined to wheelchairs. "The philosophy was that people should have control over their own lives," said Helen Roth, director of the Options for Independence Center in Logan. "It was a move to get out from under oppression and rid the world of discrimination against the disabled."
The movement began in Berkeley, where students in wheelchairs were stuck in the hospital section of the university -- the only place accessible to them. They felt isolated and segregated, which they were.
Today, many state and local governments pattern their handicap-access plans after Berkeley, which Roth called "wheelchair heaven." "It's old, built on hills and has tons of steps, but it's about as accessible as a city can be."
Some battles have been won, but the war is far from over. And people with almost any form of disability-- from visual to hearing to mental or mobility-- find that they are restricted in some way by physical barriers.
Besides trying to teach people how to use their abilities -- instead of being restricted by disabilities -- to lead full lives and make their own choices, independent living centers throughout the country work to educate the public about the needs of the disabled and the physical barriers they face-- many of them unnecessary.
The independent living philosophy is different from other organizations in several ways. For one thing, Roth said, it is an "empowerment movement, where we help them to realize they can make their own decisions and have an inherent right to do so. For another, services are aimed almost exclusively toward the person who has the disability." But the big difference is on focus: independent living places a high premium on changing the physical environment to let people move around freely.
Change has been slow. Part of the problem lies wtih a lack of understanding, according to Debra Mair, director of Salt Lake's Independent Living Center. Part of it comes from cost, since it can be prohibitive to adapt existing buildings to make them accessible. "We're hoping that eventually, even if we can't change everything that's in place now, people will be so aware and so geared toward accessibility that it will be designed into new buildings," Mair said.
Progress has been made in providing aids to the blind -- like audible signals that announced traffic light changes, or Brailed markings on elevators in many public buildings. The deaf and hearing-impaired are getting better access to services designed to meet their needs: closed-caption television shows, special telephones that allow them to communicate.
Mair said organizations for the blind and deaf have made these inroads because they have strong lobbying efforts and have managed to educate the public and officials about their needs. People with mobility disabilities, on the other hand, are not generally organized, except perhaps through independent living centers. And the centers, which rely heavily on federal money, cannot become political in any way. "We can't lobby," Mair said, "although we can do a certain amount of educating."
As part of the education effort, Mair and others from the center visit schools and talk about disabilities. During those presentations, they encourage students to ask lots of questions, so they can begin to feel comfortable with disabilities. "We want to show them that we are all just people, as different from each other as anyone else," Mair said. "We like to do the same things that other people do, like go to the park. That's why it's important that parks and other public places are accessible to wheelchairs."
Most people take mobility for granted. Consider these physical barriers cited by some at a recent workshop on disabilities:
-Handicap stalls in restrooms that are too small to maneuver in, making it impossible to shut the door or --worse-- exit. Many public places still don't even offer a handicap stall.
-Inadequate supply of housing accessible to people in wheelchairs. Such housing must be specially designed with short cabinets, counters, stoves, sinks, etc., so the resident can live there. The living space must also be on one level or have an elevator, since "even one step makes a place inaccessible to the wheelchair," Mair said.
-Another physical barrier many people don't consider is handicap parking. Very few spaces are so designated to begin with, and by the time all the non-handicapped people who ignore the signs park in those few spaces, the problem can reach crisis proportions.
-Accessible buildings don't help if transportation is not available to get there. Currently, UTA offers a couple of bus routes that can handle wheelchairs. And mini-van service is available if it's requested in advance for such things as doctor appointments. But transportation needs are still going unmet.
-Buildings with elevators are no help if the buttons are not low enough to be reached from a wheelchair. Or if there are stairs to go up or down to reach the elevator.
-Very few sidewalks and streets have curb cuts, which limits where the wheelchair can go.
-Many people in wheelchairs cannot use pay telephones, water fountains and other things most people take for granted because they are too high to reach.
"We don't expect to create a perfect world," Mair said. "But we'd sure like to make things a little easier --and more equitable."