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31 years too long to wait for access

Posters are seen during the march marking the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26 in Durango. (Courtesy of Tara Kiene)

The skies opened, and the heavens shook with thunder. The gutters along Main Avenue in Durango flooded with overwhelming torrents of water. For some, it was a welcome summer afternoon monsoon in Southwest Colorado. For about 30 marchers gathered to mark the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, it was painfully ironic.

“You can have this day,” the universe seems to say, “But we’re not going to make it easy.”

Each year when the anniversary of the ADA (now 31 years old) rolls around, we struggle to call it a celebration. Much like the soggy march, the ADA holds promise that hasn’t turned out exactly the way we had hoped. Ensuring that the law is upheld is a lot like wading through knee- (or wheelchair-) high muck and dodging possible lightning strikes.

For those only vaguely familiar with the ADA, it can be confusing that we’re still fighting for something that is the law of the land. And indeed, if you read the ADA, it is a great piece of legislation, doing more to ensure the civil rights of people with disabilities than had ever been attempted.

Yet a law is only as good as its enforcement. What the ADA fails to include is any federal or local authority to inspect or compel businesses to comply. In fact, misinterpretations of the law by local governments have given rise to myths such as the idea that certain buildings or projects are “grandfathered.” (They are decidedly not.)

As a result, the responsibility for compliance is in the hands of the private citizen. The only recourse a person has when a business is not compliant is through a complaint to the Department of Justice or a civil lawsuit. This has given rise to the occasional false or fraudulent claim – a real phenomenon that is nevertheless inflated in both its scope and scale and makes many businesses see all complaints as potentially fraudulent or unwarranted.

These failures in the law inspired many of the signs displayed by the July 26 marchers (such as “31 Years is Notice Enough” and “There is No Such Thing as Grandfathering,”), as well as the chant “Access is a Civil Right,” which echoed through the blocks between the Gaslight Theatre and Buckley Park as the water-logged marchers progressed.

The situation businesses find themselves in is somewhat understandable. The number of laws and regulatory systems most businesses must navigate is staggering, and the ADA can be complicated to the uninitiated. Still, it is the law. It is a civil right. And it is good business to have your doors open to as many customers (and employees) as possible.

This is why we march, come rain or shine. We march not to celebrate, but to mourn what could have been and increase awareness about what might still be.

Thirty-one years is too long to wait for the access to services, employment, education and activities that most people (at least the 80% of the population not currently disabled) take for granted.

Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.