The ADA sought to change that. And in St. Louis, the results have been tangible — things such as curb cuts, ramps into buildings or handicapped parking spaces are common here thanks to the federal legislation.

"It's just [been] a very gradual but steady increase in overall accessibility," says Gina Hilberry, president of Cohen Hilberry Architects, a firm that consults on ADA compliance. "The ADA was enacted twenty years ago, and for a while it seemed to have a very slow start. But it just seems to, year by year, pick up ground and impact."

Although the ADA doesn't enumerate specific accommodations — the law doesn't dictate exactly what a place must do to become accessible — for Hilberry, its tangible effects are also symbolic.

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.

"Go around the city and see how many places there are curb ramps," she says. "Occasionally, they still aren't installed. But everywhere there is a curb ramp, there used to be a six-inch step. And that six-inch step is equivalent to a barrier saying, 'You're not welcome here.' Every single street corner you can think of, there's now an open door where there used to be a closed door."

That's not to say that things are now perfect — or that the ADA solved everything. In fact, Congress found that the law's language was not being interpreted the way it intended. This spurred the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which condemned (and aimed to banish) the overly strict definition of "disability" which prevented many Americans from being protected.

The amendments highlighted an ongoing problem with ADA compliance: Disability is an individualized thing. What accommodates one person isn't appropriate for another person; everybody's version of his or her disability is different. (Anticipating what's appropriate is also tricky: While portions of the Missouri History Museum's ADA exhibit are written in Braille, the exhibit doesn't have an MP3 player with audio commentary, which might be best for some patrons.) But sweeping legislation isn't necessarily tailored to individual needs — and doesn't take unique situations into account.

Also, the ADA is complaint-driven — enforcement only happens when someone speaks up. Today, every branch of the Saint Louis Bread Co. is ADA-compliant. But that's only because in 1994, the Central West End location, which was then on Maryland Avenue, was sued because it wasn't wheelchair-accessible. Two years after that, in response to another lawsuit, the federal government ruled that the Saint Louis Zoo needed to make its trains accessible. (David Newburger represented the plaintiffs in both cases.)

Still, a settlement or accessibility agreement can be reached without litigation — and in many cases, I've found that having a conversation about potential violations can be effective. For example, I went shopping at a local grocery store a few years ago — and they had picnic tables placed in the handicapped parking spot. After speaking with store management, the tables were removed.

But it can be difficult to figure out where to complain. Many disabled people rely on Metro transit services. Yet if you Google "MetroLink" and "ADA," you're directed to file your complaint with an e-mail address that, apparently, no one checks. My attempts to communicate with that agency were ignored for nearly a month — until RFT contacted the press office. At that point, I received immediate service. How many disabled people aren't so lucky?

And there are plenty of super-technical loopholes and exceptions. Say you're opening a new restaurant on the site of a preexisting restaurant that wasn't ADA compliant. Because it doesn't involve construction, some municipalities do not have jurisdiction under their building code to force ADA-related changes, Newburger explains.

That doesn't mean skirting compliance is legal; the new restaurant is still liable for any violations should a private citizen raise the issue. But complaining to city hall in most cases would do no good.

Confused yet? You're not the only one. One of the roadblocks to ADA accessibility, says Gina Hilberry, is "simply people's understanding of what the law is and how it applies under what circumstances."

Besides that, issues of physical accessibility are often thwarted by negative attitudes and a lack of foresight. Hilberry says that accessibility "tends to be one of the last things on the plate" for architects.

Newburger sees things improving. For instance, fifteen years ago, he says, "We had a litigation against the public-housing authority, because they were designing federally funded housing that just didn't comply."

He recently ran into the architect on the other side of that litigation — at a seminar about the design revisions to the ADA going into effect in March 2011.

"We had a brief chat, and he said, 'You taught me so much I didn't know,'" Newburger says.

The public school district I attended was one of the best in the Cleveland area. The education I received from kindergarten through my high school graduation was appropriate and challenging, and it prepared me for college. I was lucky enough to get into Harvard University and chose to enroll, in no small part because their disability services and accommodations fit my needs. Without my parents' efforts to place me in mainstream schools, it's doubtful I would have ever made it that far.

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