You think the Americans with Disabilities Act has leveled the playing field? Try walking in my shoes.

You think the Americans with Disabilities Act has leveled  the playing field? Try walking in my shoes.

This summer, the Missouri History Museum opened an exhibit called "The Americans with Disabilities Act: Twenty Years Later." When I visited in the fall, the 1,000-square-foot gallery hosting the installation was eerily quiet.

The exhibit is crammed with information — from an iron lung to a poster defining the proper terminology for discussing disabilities. Relics of a less-politically correct time — a program advertises the "First National Convention of Parents & Friends of the Retarded" — hang on the wall near badges boasting slogans including "Not Dead Yet."

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a large color photo of President George H.W. Bush signing the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, into law in 1990. The actual pen Bush used receives an honored spot in a glass case.

Easter, 1985: The author, right, with her mother, Gerri, and younger brother, Jeff.
Easter, 1985: The author, right, with her mother, Gerri, and younger brother, Jeff.
Married for 35 years, Max and Colleen Starkloff are tireless advocates for people with disabilities in St. Louis.
Jennifer Silverberg
Married for 35 years, Max and Colleen Starkloff are tireless advocates for people with disabilities in St. Louis.

The ADA promises civil rights to Americans with disabilities. It says that public places and spaces can't discriminate against them. Same for private businesses, schools, public transportation and telecommunication services — if they're offering a service to the public, they also need to be accessible to those with disabilities.

Twenty years after the ADA's passage, however, cultural ignorance and condescending attitudes persist. So does discrimination, particularly in the area of health care and building accessibility. And while more people with disabilities have become a part of mainstream society, their unemployment rate is much greater than it is for able-bodied workers.

You only have to look at the history museum's ADA exhibit to see part of the problem. A computer at the entrance invites patrons to leave comments — and plenty have taken advantage of the offer.

A few praise the exhibit; others offer support for the disabled.

Others, well, don't.

"The ADA is one of the most unconstitutional laws ever to be passed," one comment reads. "There is nowhere in Article I, Section 8 that gives Congress the power to force any private business to do anything like this. The law should be nullified by every single State, via the power of the 10th Amendment."

Says another: "Wheelchair lifts on buses cost good money to install, maintain and operate. They also cost riders a good deal of time whenever they are used. My father is disabled, and he has enough courtesy to avoid taking the bus, to avoid inconveniencing others. We have given too little thought to the costs and benefits associated with ADA-type accommodations. Some are clearly win-win; others are more trouble than they are worth."

The negative comments hit close to home: I'm so busy living my daily life, I often forget that I'm a person with a disability. But I am, and that's not going to change. I walk with a pronounced limp, as a result of cerebral palsy. Both of my feet pronate (or roll inward), which means I have to wear shoe orthotics to keep my lower body in alignment. I use a cane when it's icy or snowy, or in large crowds. I use a wheelchair for long distances.

At 31, I live independently, drive a regular car, work full-time and have a loving family, friends and a boyfriend. I sleep late, go to concerts and sometimes drink too much. And I barely remember a time when the ADA didn't have my back. I expect that when I go to the grocery store, I'll be able to find handicapped parking. I count on being able to cross the street using ramps.

But despite these protections — and normalcy of my everyday life — I'm constantly reminded that I am disabled.

A few years ago, I zoned out while shopping at Whole Foods, as I tend to do while grocery shopping. While wandering aimlessly around the cheese counter, a stranger called out to me: "Excuse me, do you have cerebral palsy?" My Zen-like state dissipated, as I said, "Yes?" The woman revealed that she had a relative with cerebral palsy, enthused that she thought it was so great I was out and about and ended the conversation with a pick-me-up somewhere along the lines of, "Keep up the good work!"

While I knew she meant well, the exchange upset me deeply. I wasn't a hero or a special snowflake; I was buying cheese.

This isn't an uncommon occurrence, either: In October, I was flying out of the Las Vegas airport. A worker saw me exit a taxi and immediately greeted me with a wheelchair — a great help to me in airports, because the long distances and crowds can be difficult to navigate. But then she started asking my cab-mates — strangers I just met at the hotel and shared a taxi to the airport with — about my luggage and travel plans, as if I wasn't there. ("Is she checking luggage?" or something to that effect.) I spoke up for myself, but the connotation was that I ceased to be an independent person the second I sat in a wheelchair. In reality, I'm well traveled and frequently fly — most often alone.

For the most part, people mean well. But sometimes, it's hard to give them the benefit of the doubt. When I lived in Boston, cab drivers and neighborhood kids would ask me a variation on the question, "What's wrong with your leg/foot/knee?" — or simply, "What's wrong with you?" A few years ago, after I parked in a handicapped parking space at a Cardinals game, the garage attendant mimicked someone with a limping gait; the insinuation was that I didn't seem as if I would be disabled enough to park in such a spot. Then he saw me walk. (He apologized profusely when I returned to my car after the game.) A friend of mine once caught a stranger at Off Broadway mocking my lurching walk — behind my back, so I didn't see — and gave him a death-stare on my behalf.

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