That's not what the ADA intended.

"The ADA says, 'Wait a minute — people with disabilities do things all different ways, but if they're productive, if they produce the same thing as the guy who comes in from eight to five, then it doesn't make any difference,'" Newburger says.

"It's this cultural thing that we need to get people to realize, 'It's OK to come in at 9:30 and still be a productive employee.' Once we get that through, the ADA will be much better at employing people with disabilities."

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.

Over the summer, I requested to pre-board a Southwest Airlines flight. I typically need extra time to board because I walk slower, and the downward-sloping jetway throws me off balance. (This is exacerbated by the fact that I'm usually carrying a backpack with my laptop.) I made my request while I was sitting in a wheelchair, as my boyfriend had pushed me down the airport concourse. I told a Southwest employee that I could walk on the plane — I just needed some extra time.

She denied my request.

This was surprising to me for many reasons. Besides the fact that guidelines from the federal government state that carriers "must offer an opportunity for pre-boarding to passengers with a disability who self-identify at the gate as needing additional time or assistance to board," I've pre-boarded Southwest flights dozens of times — and have never been questioned or denied.

After I filed a complaint, the airline got back to me and noted a recent policy change. Because I can walk on the plane unassisted and don't need a specific seat accommodation, I'm only allowed to board before "family boarding," which takes place between the first two boarding groups.

While in theory this makes sense, in practice, it's not a safe alternative for me. On Southwest flights, regular boarding tends to become rushed, which means that it's likely family boarding will begin as I'm still walking down the jetway. Having little kids underfoot, or harried passengers pushing past me, is a recipe for a spill — I've fallen before because I was walking too fast toward the plane. It's important that I walk slowly, so I don't hurt myself. (Besides that, family boarding doesn't always happen, because not all flights contain families.)

In essence, I'm being punished for not being disabled enough to require extensive accommodations. And that's infuriating. I don't want to be wheeled onto a plane. I want to walk on just like everyone else does.

Yet, compared to other travelers, I'm actually lucky: In October, a Michigan man named Johnnie Tuitel, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, was told by US Airways employees that he was "too disabled to fly" by himself — and was removed from a flight.

I've never been the type of person who considers leaving my house to be a political statement, never considered myself to be changing attitudes or raising awareness by just living my life. But I was surprised to be overwhelmed with sadness as I finished going through the exhibit at the Missouri History Museum. In fact, the exhibit was more powerful to me than I thought it would be.

Until I started reporting this story, I had never really considered disability rights to be a civil-rights issue. Perhaps because I don't remember living in a world without the ADA — or perhaps because I've always functioned in the able-bodied world — the idea that I would be denied rights and access because of how I walk never occurred to me. I often forget that I have a disability. But I was reminded that to others, I'm nothing but my disability.

Indeed, the exhibit hit home for me that discrimination was perfectly legal up until twenty years ago. Only twenty years ago — a drop in the bucket, time-wise — someone like me didn't necessarily have the same rights as other people. Just a short time ago, I was considered a second-class citizen, someone not necessarily deserving of the same rights and privileges other people take for granted — being able to enter a building, restaurant or a hotel; having a job; making a phone call; crossing the street safely.

The comments left by attendees perpetuated so many self-defeating disability myths — that those with a disability are a burden, they cost businesses money, that the ADA is unconstitutional. That last comment made me angry: The idea that my right to equal access can be reduced to a political talking point — and, in fact, something that isn't even a right at all, because it allegedly conflicts with American freedoms — shows a shocking lack of compassion. Anyone who would say the same thing about a specific ethnic group would be labeled a racist or a bigot.

Why is it acceptable to think that those with disabilities don't deserve protection for basic human rights?

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