'WHEN we go to a hotel, they'll tell my husband and me, 'We have an accessible room for you! says Deborah Gately McKeen, who uses a wheelchair.
"They have installed a wider door, and taken out some shelving, but that's usually it. They never have an accessible shower I can use. They never have a raised toilet seat. The phone hookups are generally all the way across the room, not by the bed. The phone is totally useless for me once I'm in bed. I'd like to know I could at least call for help from the bed if something happened to my husband, like if he had a heart attack in the night.
"I'd like to just be able to check into a hotel room and take a shower and go to bed like everyone else. But I can't."
On Jan. 26 every hotel, restaurant, movie theater, and store in the nation - any business open to the public - must find ways to accommodate not just people in wheelchairs but those with all manner of disabilities. The public-accommodations section of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act takes effect that day.
The law is the most far-reaching piece of civil rights legislation passed by Congress. Businesses have had 18 months to gear up for disabled customers. Some larger hotel chains and restaurants have acted to make their facilities accessible to people like Mrs. McKeen, but their efforts often leave much to be desired. Many of those who operate public accommodations aren't even aware of the law. Most of their places are not nearly as accessible to disabled people as McKeen's hotel room was.
Because of experiences like hers, many people with disabilities shun going out in public, leaving operators of public accommodations assuming that only a few people need "barrier-free" facilities. These operators are reluctant to carry out a mandate they think pertains to only a small group of people.
There are 43 million Americans with disabilities. Although that figure includes people with no physical need for accommodations like sign language interpreters, ramps, or Braille menus, the number of people who do need such provisions runs into the tens of millions. And many more Americans who aren't "disabled" will benefit from the accommodations required by this law - people who, as they age, have trouble getting up and down steps, whose vision is getting worse or whose hearing is weakening.
A large majority of people with disabilities do not go to movies, to the theater, to sports events, or musical performances, said a 1986 Harris poll; a substantial majority never go to a restaurant, a grocery story, or a place of worship. That's why society thinks there are so few of us. It's a vicious circle: People with disabilities report that they do not feel welcome to attend or visit ordinary places open to the public. They often report fear or self-consciousness about their disabilities as reasons
why they don't participate in society.
NOT all discrimination comes in the form of "architectural barriers." For many of us with disabilities, "the discrimination is really subtle," as Amy Hasbrouck puts it. Ms. Hasbrouck is legally blind and works at the Boston Center for Independent Living.
When Hasbrouck goes into the typical fast-food restaurant with its menu posted on the wall, she says, "I can't see it. I ask the people taking the orders to read the menu, but they don't want to. I ask, 'what do you have?' but they act impatient. 'Oh, sandwiches and stuff,' they say. They don't want to take the time to read it. And there isn't any printed menu available, like there could be. There could just as easily be one in large print."
After Jan. 26, any place that refuses to read a menu to someone like Hasbrouck will be breaking the law.
The law calls people with disabilities "a discrete and insular minority." They have been "faced with restrictions and limitations, subjected to a history of purposeful unequal treatment, and relegated to a position of political powerlessness in our society."
Under the law, disabled people denied services can sue the offending establishments. Will they? Or will they continue to believe, as so many do today, that to be disabled is tantamount to losing one's right to be out in society? McKeen says that, as a teen, she too believed she had to accept not getting into places. But today, she says, she has come to see structural barriers as something up to society to remove.
"I'm part of society, too," McKeen says. "I pay taxes. And even if I didn't, people should still be treated equally. Access is a consideration we should make for any human being."