30 Years After ADA's Passage, Cleveland's Disability Community Celebrates

Youth Challenge Disability Community Alumni in front of Cleveland Sign
CEO Chris Garr, Niral Sheth and other Youth Challenge alumni in Cleveland Celebrate the ADA's 30th anniversary. [Chris Garr]
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The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law July 26, 1990. In it, Congress wrote that “physical and mental disabilities in no way diminish a person's right to fully participate in all aspects of society,” and banned discrimination against anyone with a disability.

This landmark piece of civil rights legislation transformed the lives of millions of people. But it took courage and action by the disability community across the nation and here locally to get to that point and the advocacy continues now.

From Stopping Busses To Show-Stopping Performer

Mary Verdi-Fletcher performing with members of her company, Dancing Wheels [Mary Verdi-Fletcher]

Mary Verdi-Fletcher was born with spina bifida, which confined her to a wheelchair from age 12. As a young woman in the 1980s, she worked as an advocate, fighting for Cleveland’s disability community to have “independence.”

“And I wanted it not just for me, but I wanted it for other people, because in our jobs we saw people stuck in nursing homes that didn't need to be there,” Verdi-Fletcher said. “They didn't have caregivers at home, nor did their families know that they could have that. So we worked on legislation for personal care assistance, too, so that people could live outside of the institution. We did a lot of work even prior to the ADA.”

Verdi-Fletcher and the local disability community also fought for accessible public transportation in Cleveland. At the time, protests were happening all across the country, and a national group called ADAPT told Verdi-Fletcher and others to take their fight to the streets.

So they did. They wheeled themselves to Downtown Cleveland alongside some able-bodied allies with a plan to trap a bus.

“They told us to go on a one-way street at lunch hour or a high traffic time period and go by a traffic light,” said Verdi-Fletcher, “And when the bus stopped for a red light, go in front of the bus and then circle the bus. So we did. And then when a second bus would come by next to them, to encircle that bus. So we did.”

They held signs and chanted “We wanna ride in ‘85.” They convinced passengers to get off the bus and the driver to pull the keys out of the ignition to show solidarity. Eventually, Verdi-Fletcher said, public authorities called in the police.

“The police back then pretty much didn't know what to do with us because the jails were not accessible,” Verdi-Fletcher said with a chuckle. “So they decided to take us, they were going to take us to the hospital instead. But they brought the paddy wagon in. And then they drove it away.”

After three hours, the transit authority conceded, Verdi-Fletcher said, promising every new bus purchased from then on would have a lift.

It was a local victory, but part of a bigger movement that led to the enactment of the ADA. Verdi-Fletcher watched the signing on television.

“Immediately, we became first class citizens. We were not a protected class until that time. And eventually,” Verdi-Fletcher said, “we started to see changes occur on a daily basis where there wasn't curb cuts, curb cuts were put in, ramps were installed. Later on, universal design was created.”

Verdi-Fletcher, now 65, said the fight for total inclusion in the workplace and elsewhere continues. 

She’s a professional dancer who runs Dancing Wheels, an integrated dance company in Cleveland with what she calls stand-up and sit-down dancers. She’s lived out her dream, she said, and wants the same for others. 

“Right now, we're working with a disability and arts group to allow for people with disabilities to get degrees in dance departments,” said Verdi-Fletcher. “You know, a degree in dance. So there is not that available at this point in time.”

And why shouldn’t a person with a disability get a degree in dance, Verdi-Fletcher asks. As Congress wrote in the ADA 30 years ago, “physical and mental disabilities in no way diminish a person's right to fully participate in all aspects of society.”

Technology Makes More Possible — When It's Accessible

Niral Sheth with First Lady Michelle Obama during a visit to Ohio. [Niral Sheth]

Niral Sheth was 9 years old when the ADA was signed into law.  He said as a child, he didn’t think much about the rights afforded him as a visually impaired boy. When it came to reading Braille, he just assumed, “Oh, okay, this is how I learn.”

But now, as a 39-year-old man, Sheth recognizes the impact the ADA has had on him and the entire disability community. While previous generations may have been institutionalized, now much of society asks, “How can we accommodate them?”  

For the past 10 years, Sheth has worked the reservations line for Marriott Hotels and Resorts. Immediately upon being hired, he said, Marriott made sure he had “everything he needed” to do the job – particularly extra technology and support. He’s able to work out of his parents' home in Parma.

But Sheth vividly recalls moments in his life when he was denied opportunities. He was turned down for a summer job under the rationale that it was an unsafe environment and “there were too many boxes around here." Sheth once called Apple to complain that an early version of the iPhone was not accessible for the visually impaired and got a response something to the effect of “it’s the smallest portion of our population, we’re not really thinking about accessibility.”  

“That made me really mad and I probably said some words I shouldn’t have,” Sheth said. “But then, a couple years later, in 2008, the Apple 3Gs came out and I was like, ‘Ohhh!’  I just wanted it. It was the first phone by Apple that had accessibility built in.” Sheth has used an iPhone ever since.

Sheth vividly recalls when President Barack Obama signed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act into law, ensuring Americans with vision and hearing impairments have full access to the video, voice, text and other capabilities of smartphones, digital television, and internet-based video programming. One of his proudest moments is meeting Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama when they paid a visit to Ohio. 

30 Years Later, Every Vote Still Matters

Chris Garr with Youth Challenge participant Ryan Miller at Youth Challenge Mini Camp. [Chris Garr]

Chris Garr is the co-chair of ADA Cleveland, a coalition of 19 nonprofits serving people with disabilities in Northeast Ohio.  He’s also the CEO of Youth Challenge, a local organization providing sports and recreational opportunities for children and young adults with physical disabilities.

“Obviously, our focus at Youth Challenge is sports and recreation,” Garr said, “But it's taken so much of a turn towards developing independent living skills and advocacy because of the relationships we've made with other nonprofits in ADA Cleveland.”

One of the the ADA’s greatest legacies is that forces individuals to think in a more inclusive way, Garr said.

“Everybody thinks of curb cuts, right? And elevators and ramps in Braille. But I think most significantly for people with disabilities is showing others, by action, that people with disabilities can be equal partners in society,” Garr said.  “Whether that's here in Cleveland or nationally, I think that that really holds true. Attitudinal change is just as important as changing physical structures.”

On Sunday, Youth Challenge and the other members of ADA Cleveland are celebrating the ADA’s 30th anniversary virtually, with a series of speakers online and a series of webinars that deal with every title of the ADA, including employment, government public services and telecommunications.  They’re also starting a 30-day Call to Action.   

Even 30 years after the ADA, the disability community and its allies must remain vigilant and keep advocating and fighting for their total inclusion and equal rights, Garr said, especially when it comes to voting rights.

“Technology for voting is an absolute dinosaur,” he said. “You know, it's not as simple as saying, ‘Well, it's once a year, why can't someone take paratransit to the polling place and cast their ballot like everyone else casts their ballot?,’ There are simple solutions to ensuring that everyone has access to a poll, whether it's an internet-based platform or through mail.”

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