20-year-old law has given disabled access to America

"There's the cutout," Amelia says, pushing toward the low spot in the sidewalk designed to accommodate her wheelchair. In a moment she's propelled herself from the parking lot to the front door of the restaurant.

In a flash she leaves her old man hustling to catch up.

It seems like a little thing, that cutout, but for a young person in a wheelchair a 10-inch-high sidewalk might as well be a 10-foot wall. That cutout means the difference between easily crossing the street or entering a business and being forced to jump the curb or ask for help.

I've been thinking about that small symbol a lot this past week, which marked the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As the parent of a daughter who uses a wheelchair to get around, it's hard to imagine what daily life was like before President George H.W. Bush signed the landmark bill into law over a roar of protest from the nation's business community.

Critics of the ADA find easy anecdotal fodder in lawsuits where judges and juries have ruled in favor of narcoleptic police dispatchers and against miniature golf course operators. The stories are juicy, but fail to illustrate the greater truth that this nation is a more inclusive place for all its citizens today because of the ADA.

We're not talking about a select group. Depending on your source, from 25 million to 40 million Americans are physically disabled. While the ADA has provided a rich hunting ground for litigators, it has positively affected the lives of many Americans.

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In 1970, John Chambers lost his ability to walk after being diagnosed with a virus commonly called valley fever. He was forced to use a wheelchair back in the dark ages of American disability.

He jumped a lot of curbs and took countless spills. City streets were obstacle courses for wheelchair users, who fought for every inch of access to public places.

A lot has changed since then: His wheelchair, for one.

"My first wheelchair weighed 60 pounds and was made of steel," Chambers says.

Modern wheelchairs are made of lightweight alloys and commonly weigh about 20 pounds.

The law changed, too. The ADA redefined the lives of millions along with the public's perception of the disabled. Chambers, who helped create the Adaptive Recreation Division for the city of Las Vegas in 1990, will always be grateful for those changes.

"For 20 years I didn't have any civil rights," Chambers says. "I never could understand why it wasn't included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It just didn't make any sense. But then a lot of things didn't make any sense back then."

Chambers will never forget the first time he voted. He was forced to fill out an absentee ballot because his polling place wasn't wheelchair accessible.

Imagine renting a motel room only to find you must crawl to use the bathroom and can't adjust the shower. You'd be insulted. Before the ADA such indignities were commonplace.

Now 56, Chambers reminds me we take for granted businesses will be disabled-accessible and restaurants and bars will provide bathroom accommodations for wheelchair users. Before the ADA, the disabled dared not venture far from home.

"The greatest change is access," Chambers says. "When I travel, I don't have to worry about going to a town where I won't be able to get into a bathroom."

An avid sportsman, Chambers remembers when his mere presence on the golf course was a play-stopping novelty.

"Fifteen years ago, every time I'd hit a golf shot I'd have a gallery," he says. "Now it's accepted."

Time doesn't sit still. Thanks to the ADA, neither do America's disabled.

In a nation that cherishes freedom, equal access makes everyone more free.

John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.