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ADA at 25: Work in progress

Musicians aren't usually carried onto stage, set up to perform, then taken off after their set -- but that isn't uncommon for Duluth's Gaelynn Lea Tressler.

While getting around her neighborhood in a wheelchair, Gaelynn Lea Tressler of Duluth not only encounters curbs but also broken and damaged sections of sidewalk that are tricky to negotiate. Bob King /
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Musicians aren’t usually carried onto stage, set up to perform, then taken off after their set - but that isn’t uncommon for Duluth’s Gaelynn Lea Tressler.
Tressler, who uses a wheelchair, works as a fiddle instructor and regularly performs in the Twin Ports area. She hates being carried on stage, she said; it’s something performers without disabilities don’t have to deal with.
“It’s not as dignified to have to be carried on stage when it would be just as easy to have a ramp,” Tressler said. “And it takes away an element of performance, but there’s no other option.”
That’s because older buildings often aren’t fully accessible, and it’s an ongoing problem faced by people with disabilities in the Northland and beyond - even after the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law 25 years ago today.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and is aimed at ensuring equal opportunities in employment, transportation and other aspects of daily life. Northland residents who have disabilities credit the ADA with greatly improving their lives, but agree there still is a lot of work to be done.
Discrimination still exists in job searches, they say. It can be a nightmare to navigate city sidewalks in winter. And among the most common concerns is businesses that have not improved accessibility because of the cost or because their building was grandfathered in before the law took effect.
“What’s the difference between a sign saying, ‘You can’t come in here,’ or an actual barrier, an actual wall that you can’t climb?” said John Nousaine, director of North Country Independent Living in Superior, an agency that provides programs and services to people with disabilities in Northwestern Wisconsin.
“A step is the same as a sign saying, ‘You’re not allowed here. No people with disabilities allowed.’ …
“A lot of people don’t realize it’s a civil rights law. … They think it’s a building code.”
Title I of the ADA ensures protection for people with disabilities in the workforce. It eliminated obvious ways that employers could discriminate - but some observers still see less apparent ways persisting.
Nousaine reflected on challenges he faced when looking for a job after losing part of his right leg in a 1978 injury.
“If you lie on a job application, that’s grounds to be fired - but back then, it was legal to ask, A: if you had a disability. and B: if you’d ever gotten workman’s comp. And I had both of those checked, and you would just immediately get screened out,” Nousaine said. “It didn’t take me very long to learn my best option is to lie about those two questions.”
Now, Nousaine said, questions about a person’s disability can be made only after the job candidate is deemed qualified and is offered the job. Although the ADA prohibits employers from asking about a person’s disability during an interview, that doesn’t mean they’ll abide by the rule.
“I’ve been to interviews where employers have actually, seriously said, ‘Now that I see you, I don’t know if you can do this job.’ I mean, it’s office jobs,” Tressler said. “It’s not like I’m applying to be a construction worker.”
Once, Tressler found out after getting a job that a manager had expressed reservations about hiring her because they believed Tressler’s appearance might scare children.
“That should not enter the conversation; that should not have been discussed,” Tressler said. “And just because I wasn’t there to hear it doesn’t mean those kind of conversations don’t happen. … They might seem cool with my disability, but if they’re talking about it at the interview after I leave, they’re still talking about it.”
Although not as explicit as the questions Nousaine faced on pre-ADA job applications, Tressler said she is frustrated by certain prerequisites that may discourage people with disabilities from applying. An example, Tressler said, is when an application states, “must have driver’s license to apply.” Some people with disabilities are unable to drive or afford the modifications to their vehicles that would allow them to drive.
Tressler explained what an ideal employer would say: “Yes, we can do this. We want you on. Let’s make it work. What can we do?”
To be in compliance with the ADA, that’s how employers should treat qualified individuals, defined by the law as “an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.”
If a candidate with disabilities is deemed qualified and is hired, the ADA requires an employer to accommodate the individual’s needs - whether it’s modifying work schedules, providing equipment or devices, adjusting training or policies, or other accommodations.
Some observers say the cost of such accommodations may scare employers.
“If you’re a company that’s been around for any amount of time, you already have processes; you already have papers and documents and ways of doing things that you’re used to. … Even if you are willing, as an employer, to hire somebody with a disability, (it) doesn’t mean that somebody’s actually going to step in and do the job with the process you have now,” said Nimer Jaber, a case manager at the Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss in Duluth. That could require time and money that some companies may be reluctant to spend.
Although there seems to be agreement that the ADA has improved the workplace, Tressler said remaining barriers - coupled with transportation issues - may push people with disabilities to take on entrepreneurial pursuits. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11.1 percent of people with disabilities are self-employed, compared to only 6.2 percent of people without disabilities in 2014.
The ADA requires new buildings permitted after Jan. 26, 1992, to be fully compliant with the law - that is, accessible to those with disabilities. Structures built since then present far fewer obstacles, albeit occasional oversights and issues.
But owners of structures built before 1992 are required to make changes only if they are remodeled, which has left navigating many buildings impossible or at least challenging to people with disabilities.
Tressler said that when she has approached business owners about their building’s inaccessibility, she often hears a similar response: The owner would love to make their business accessible, but the financial burden is too high.
Tressler said she feels that some businesses in pre-1992 buildings take advantage of their ADA exception, arguing they were grandfathered in and do not need to pay for alterations.
“But grandfathered in does not mean, ‘I am now relinquishing any responsibility whatsoever to become accessible,’ ” Tressler said.
Russ Stover, a former Duluth City Council member and now the transportation office assistant at North Country Independent Living, uses a wheelchair. He said he was told by a business that it didn’t put in a ramp because no one who used a wheelchair would visit that business.
Laughing at the irony, Nousaine said, “How ya gonna come there when there’s no ramp?”
It’s beneficial for businesses to become accessible, said the Lighthouse Center’s Jaber.
“You’re turning down a subset of clients,” he said of not improving accessibility. “If you’re interested in losing business, then I guess, sure, go right ahead and do that.”
Terri Hansen, an administrative assistant at the Lighthouse Center who has low vision, noted that she finds lines painted on the floor of the DECC to direct people to be very helpful. When facilities or employees are genuinely accommodating, she said, it’s welcoming.
“I’m more (likely) to frequent a place that wants to make it available for me,” she said.
Improved accessibility doesn’t just help people with disabilities, Stover and Tressler said. Building modifications to help users of wheelchairs also benefit parents pushing strollers, for example. And just because someone wasn’t born with a disability, it doesn’t mean they’ll never need an accessible building, Stover said.
“Anybody that lives a lengthy life most likely will acquire a disability in their lifetime,” he said. “People don’t want to hear that, but it’s true.”
Getting around
Even if a business is accessible, getting there can be its own challenge. Factors such as weather, public transportation that doesn’t meet an individual’s needs and barriers to obtain a driver’s license can limit the mobility of people with disabilities.
In addition to the Duluth Transit Authority’s STRIDE service - a network of buses that specifically serve people with disabilities - all 63 of the DTA’s regular buses are ADA-compliant, as are the routes, said Heath Hickok, DTA marketing director.
But a strong public transit system means little to people with disabilities if they can’t access it, Tressler said.
“If you can’t get off the end of your curb and nobody is shoveling the sidewalks, you’re not going to use the bus anyway,” she said.
Other people with disabilities, such as those with vision loss, also struggle with snow-blocked sidewalks.
“I think people with a disability or vision loss have turned into instant mountain climbers,” Lighthouse Center instructor Harold Hanson said.
Tressler said that she sometimes needs to take her wheelchair onto a street if the sidewalk is inaccessible or if there are no curb cuts to get to and from the walk. She knows it’s dangerous; she’s been hit by a car once before - but sometimes there isn’t another option for getting from one place to another.
Data collected by the DTA suggest people in wheelchairs are less likely to take the bus during brutal winters. The winter of 2013-14 was particularly long and snowy, while this past winter was more mild. For the period from Jan. 1 to June 1, from 2014 to 2015 the DTA saw a 7.3 percent increase in wheelchair users riding the STRIDE service. On regular routes, the increase was 16.3 percent. Hickok attributed it to better weather and sidewalks in better condition during the winter months.
The DTA noted that it has employees designated to shovel and maintain bus stops and platforms when needed - but sidewalks in Duluth often are left to residents and private businesses to clear.
Instead of issuing citations right away for failure to clear snow from sidewalks, the city will first warn a property owner several times. The city is aware of senior citizens and those who are homebound who may be unable to complete the work, said Pakou Ly, Duluth’s public information coordinator.
“We can’t go out there and shovel every single sidewalk, but we know there are neighbors that could do it,” she said.
And while the city understands the importance of curb cuts and ramps, city engineer Cindy Voigt noted that some older sidewalks don’t yet have them.
“We have over 500 miles of roads so I’m sure there are … roads that have sidewalks that don’t have ramps,” she said.
When a resident calls about the lack of curb cuts or ramps, Ly and Voigt said the city tries to follow up right away. Voigt said it gets placed on the street maintenance list, but construction can take place only during the summer.
“It has nothing to do with cost; it’s more of a season thing,” Voigt said. “If we know about it and someone has a valid complaint, we try to get to it in that season.”
During the past six years, Tressler said she has called several times about her block, which she said has only half of the curb cuts or ramps that it should have. She said changes have yet to be made.
Work in progress
While challenges remain 25 years after the ADA was signed into law, the law has improved aspects of daily life for many people with disabilities.
Tressler said that the law is “making it a little bit more acceptable in society so people are more used to seeing people’s disabilities,” she said, noting that people with disabilities were hidden from society not long ago.
Nousaine also said he’s seen a shift in attitude toward people with disabilities, and has seen people with disabilities taking more visible roles in business and in the community.
“Most of the discrimination people have faced has been due to attitude and misconceptions about disability,” he said. “I think the biggest thing now that is changing is - it’s slow - but people are recognizing disability as just a naturally occurring thing.”

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