Posts Tagged 'Americans with Disabilities Act'

Whitney and Beth, live at Biograph Theatre

For eighty years now, Chicago’s Biograph Theatre has been known as the movie house where FBI agents gunned down bank robber John Dillinger. After our performance this past Monday night, though, maybe the Biograph will start being better known as the theatre where Beth Finke and her cute Seeing Eye dog Whitney got their stage debut.

The Biograph in an earlier era.

The Biograph in an earlier era.

Let me explain. The Biograph was a movie Theatre for 70 years after Dillinger was killed, but in 2004, a regional theatre here in Chicago called Victory Gardens refurbished it to put on live productions there. Arts organizations all over Chicago are sponsoring special events, lectures and workshops this year to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and when Victory Gardens Access Project opted to sponsor a workshop for “front of house” (FOH) staff from theaters all over the city, I was asked to sit on a panel there with three other disability advocates to give tips on some of the special needs people with disabilities might have when we attend live performances.

Front of House encompasses all the things happening with the audience in the lobby and at the concession areas before, during, and immediately after a show — anything from selling tickets to handing out concessions to ushering. People who work front of house tend to do so because they enjoy working with people, they love live theatre and they’d like more people to come out to support and enjoy performances. From what I witnessed at the workshop Monday night, they are keen to include more people with disabilities in their audiences, too — I was pleasantly surprised by the large turnout. Nearly 100 FOH staff members were there, representing everything from storefront theatres to art museums to established art programs.

Whitney and I arrived an hour before our panel, and when we walked into the Biograph’s refurbished and stunning lobby I discovered two sign language interpreters giving a workshop about the things theatres should look for when hiring sign language interpreters for their productions. The presenters used their voices as they signed, which made it possible for a woman like me to eavesdrop. I did, and learned that the best theatre interpreters are ones who:

  • avoid signing every word — it’s more important to convey the overall story and allow the action on stage to tell the rest
  • prepare in advance — a presenter said she studies the written script and listens to recordings of the play for weeks ahead of her sign language performances and attends rehearsals and productions ahead of time to get a sense for the timing and determine which signs to use on the day of her sign language interpretation
  • agree to work in teams if the play has many people on stage at once who are talking over each other
  • use subtle movements, like widening their eyes or raising their eyebrows to add meaning to the words they’re spelling out
  • wear extra dark lipstick so audience members capable of reading their lips can see them better
  • wear dark clothes if they’re very light skinned so readers can see their hands
  • wear light-colored clothing if their skin is dark so readers can see their hands
  • take rings and bracelets off before they start signing

So many things I hadn’t ever thought of! Our panel afterwards went well, and it was a thrill to be on the Richard Christiansen stage at the Biograph Theatre with playwright Mike Irvin (founder of Jerry’s Orphans, which organizes annual protests against the Jerry Lewis telethon), Rachel Arfa, J.D.,(a staff attorney at Equip for Equality, a legal advocacy organization that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities) and Evan Hatfield (Steppenwolf Theatre’s director of audience experience).

Mike Irvin uses a wheelchair, Rachel Arfa uses bilateral cochlear implants, I use a Seeing Eye dog, and Evan Hatfield introduced himself by telling the audience he “Doesn’t identify as having a disability.” We took off from there.

The evening ended with answers to questions Front of House staff members in the audience had about touch tours before shows, wheelchair-accessible stages, captioning technology, and person-first language like “Mike uses a wheelchair” rather than “wheelchair-bound Mike.” Audience members shared the challenges and successes of accessing arts programs, the night flew by, and I think (hope!) we made a small difference.

Guess I can find that out the next time I attend a performance in Chicago — and I hope that’s very soon.

Someone special

This past week I asked the memoir-writers in my classes to write about “someone special” in honor of the 25th anniversary of The Americans with Disabilities Act. Mary Rigdon wrote about an athlete who uses a wheelchair and said his determination was the impetus for ensuring the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta were open to spectators who needed accessible seating.

I have a part-time job moderating the blog for Easter Seals National Headquarters in Chicago, and I liked Mary’s piece so much that we ran it as a guest post on the Easter Seals blog yesterday morning. Now I’m re-blogging it here for you Safe & Sound readers, too.

How the ADA changed my life: “there is nothing on earth like being there…”

by Mary Rigdon

Seating map for a basketball stadium showing wheelchair access points

Basketball stadium map showing accessible seating areas

My life changed drastically when the ADA was passed and I became the compliance officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit. I spent more time out of my cubbyhole office after that, interviewing folks with disabilities who raised complaints, choosing locations to inspect for compliance, and negotiating details of upgraded plans for expanded services for those with disabilities.

Our first real confrontation came with a large hotel at the downtown Renaissance Center. We decided to target that facility as it had hundreds of rooms, was used for multiple conventions, and was in the process of remodeling and updating the buildings. We reasoned that if this hotel agreed to the necessary upgrades, it would stimulate others to get on board with the ADA, too.

A graduate student who used a wheelchair accompanied us to demonstrate the need for rooms with accommodations– wider doors, room numbers lower on the wall with raised numerals and Braille designations, lower sinks in the bathrooms, and showers with no ledges to block entrance. After several months of negotiation we reached a compliance agreement and schedule which we publicized everywhere to pave our way into other venues — more hotels, lots of restaurants and theaters.

I enjoyed attending training sessions at the Department of Justice (DOJ) with people around the country who were dealing with these issues, too. DOJ added an entire new staff in the Civil Rights section to concentrate on the ADA, including one person with sight problems, one with hearing deficits, and feisty Joe, a speed demon in a wheelchair.

Joe was a fanatic wheelchair athlete, having played in a league during college and law school. From this background, he became a primary motivator for making athletic stadiums and sports arenas accessible to those with disabilities, particularly persons with special seating requirements. This was a long and hard-fought battle in many cases, and I cannot forget the excitement in Joe’s voice as he described his thrill in attending his first professional basketball game in person. “I love watching games on TV, but there is nothing on earth like being there at the stadium,” he said. “All that energy, hearing all those fans, seeing the court and watching the players right there — live and in person!

This determination was the impetus in persuading the Justice Department to press particularly hard for seating accommodations at the principal venues in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. It was with great fanfare that Deval Patrick, then the capable Deputy Attorney General for Civil Rights, announced that 1% of the seats (850 of 85,000) in the main stadium would be wheelchair accessible with adequate sight-lines, and that those seats would all be near regular seating for accompanying family and friends. This was an historic first for an Olympic site.

Twenty-five years later I am glad to see the continuing ADA accommodations enacted, and when I see the names of my ADA comrades in the news I rejoice in their continuing dedication to the needs of people with disabilities.

Back to me. You can Visit to learn more about this important civil rights legislation.

Let’s keep working: today is the 25th anniversary of the ADA

Blind justice!When I finished college I got a job at the Study Abroad Office at University of Illinois. During one-on-one appointments with U of I students, I’d ask what they might like to study overseas, what sort of living arrangements they wanted, did they speak a foreign language, which countries they were particularly interested in, that sort of thing. I’d describe options available to them, make phone calls to other universities If U of I didn’t offer the option they wanted, and help with paperwork to get their credits transferred. I liked the work, I was good at it, and soon I was promoted to assistant director.

and then, in 1986, I lost my sight. My contract was terminated.

The Americans with Disabilities Act wouldn’t be signed into legislation until four years later. Today, July 26,2015, the ADA is 25 years old, and while I am celebrating all the progress we have made in a relatively short amount of time, I also acknowledge we have a lot more to do. One example: it’s 25 years after the ADA was passed, and the unemployment rate among people who are blind still hovers around 75%.

Here’s my work story: After my contract at University of Illinois was terminated, I attended a residential rehabilitation center for the blind, learned Braille and taught myself to use a talking computer. I applied for a job at the Study Abroad Office again after The Americans with Disabilities Act had been passed and made it through the first round of interviews. Even with the law ON my side, though, I didn’t get hired.

My husband Mike was the lucky guy who got to read the carefully crafted rejection letter out loud to me. Not a word about disability. The reason I wasn’t hired? My lack of recent work experience.

I applied for all sorts of jobs after that. One was with an emergency hotline that took calls from people whose pets have eaten a toxic substance. I emailed them for details. My note didn’t mention I was blind, or that I used a talking computer to send the email. Their response was enthusiastic. I was invited to visit the office to apply for the job.

A friend drove me to the interview. I heard the receptionist leave her desk abruptly as my friend helped me fill out the printed application form. The woman who walked out next was not the receptionist — she had a different stride from the first, and her bracelets jangled. Rather than greeting me, this new woman launched into a speech. Forms had to be filled out with every phone call that came in, she said. Her voice was shrill. The bracelets clattered. Every word had to be documented, she said. Every word by every person who calls the hotline.

I explained how I use a talking computer. I could create digital versions of the forms, complete them on the computer, print them out. “No,” she said. “They’re legal forms. They have to be filled out by hand.” I tried to squeeze out more details, see if maybe there were workarounds. But she wouldn’t listen. That was that.

It was a law suit waiting to happen, but even today, 25 years after the ADA was passed, these law suits are the burden of the person with the disability. To bring a case against that poison control hotline I would have had to pay a lawyer, file, wait months –sometimes years –hoping the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would accept my case. I didn’t file a complaint.

When Mike spotted another want ad for that same position in the paper weeks later, I sent another email asking for another interview. No email response.

A carefully worded letter arrived soon afterwards with task descriptions, each one specifically written to make it perfectly clear that a blind person couldn’t possibly perform them. The product of a legal consultation, I was sure. I got this sort of treatment more times than I care to tell you about. I don’t take it personally anymore, but back then it was painful. And confounding.

I guess it’s the same as other bigotries. Changing the law is one thing. Changing hearts and minds is another, and slowly, slowly those hearts and minds did start to change. As ramps replaced curbs, and theatres and sports facilities added accessible seating, and buses and trains and subway cars ran automatic announcements to call out each and every stop, and handicapped stalls were added to public restrooms, well, a funny thing happened. People with disabilities started eating out at restaurants, enjoying a night out at the movies, cheering on their sports teams at games, traveling on public transportation. People got more used to being around those of us with disabilities, and that familiarity made them more willing to take a chance on hiring us.

I wrote earlier this week about the University of Illinois in Urbana hiring me as a model for art students. After that, a Presbyterian church in Champaign hired me as a volunteer coordinator. When we moved to Geneva, Ill. a minor league baseball team found a job for me in their ticket office. In Chicago, a non-profit organization took me on as their Interactive Community Coordinator, and three different organizations hired me to lead memoir-writing classes. I am grateful to the School of Art and Design at University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, McKinley Church and Foundation, the Kane County Cougars, Easter Seals National Headquarters, the City of Chicago, Lincoln Park Village, and the Center for Life and Learning for taking a chance on me. Their confidence in me has helped boost my confidence in myself.

I am also thankful to the legislators, demonstrators, advocates and lobbyists who worked so hard to get The Americans with Disabilities Act passed back in 1990. The next frontier? Bringing that unemployment rate down. Let’s keep working.

One step at a time

Twenty-five short years ago, the United States Capitol had no wheelchair ramps. You read that right. The monument that pretty much defines American equality and justice was inaccessible to people using wheelchairs.

Disable demonstrators crawl the Capitol steps. Photo: Action for Access, Tom Olin

Disable demonstrators crawl the Capitol steps. Photo: Action for Access, Tom Olin

In 1990, activists in Washington, D.C. struggled out of their wheelchairs and crawled up the Capitol steps to urge lawmakers to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Capitol Crawl and other demonstrations across the country were modeled on tactics used in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and they helped push legislators to pass the ADA on July 26, 1990 — 25 years ago.

While the memoir classes I lead are on a short hiatus, I’ve been dedicating more time to my part-time job at Easter Seals Headquarters in Chicago. I’m the Interactive Community Coordinator there, which is just a fancy title that means I moderate the Easter Seals Blog. I keep my ear open for articles and issues concerning disabilities and recruit guest bloggers to write posts about those topics. They email the posts to me, I edit them and add html code, and, presto! Their posts get published.

Come to think of it, You have Easter Seals to thank — or blame — for this Safe & Sound blog. It was at Easter Seals that I learned to use the blogging tools, and now this month at Easter Seals we are “celebrating one of the most important civil rights legislations of our time.”

Accessible design is so common now that some people find it hard to remember life without curb cuts, wheelchair ramps and Braille on elevator buttons. An NPR reporter interviewed Katy Neas, a colleague of mine from Easter Seals Headquarters to remind us what things were like back in the 20th Century.

Katy told the reporter that back then too many people with disabilities were out of sight and out of the minds of the general public. “There was a lot of ignorance about the interests and abilities of people with disabilities,” she said. “Discrimination and low expectations were part of the mainstream culture. Why would someone who uses a wheelchair want to go to the movies? Why would someone who is blind want to eat in a restaurant?”

That last quote stopped me in my tracks. We’ve come a long way, baby. I learned at work that 25 years ago, Easter Seals hired a Minneapolis ad agency to create posters for adults and children with disabilities to bring along to protests and events across the country. The posters were used in print public service announcements, too. More from the NPR story:

As an outspoken advocate for the ADA, Easter Seals created a series of powerful posters that illustrated the dilemmas — and desires — of disabled Americans and helped the country understand the reasons for, and responsibilities resulting from, the anti-discrimination legislation.

We’ve still got a ways to go (25 years after the ADA was passed, the unemployment rate among people who are blind still hovers around 75%) but we really have come a long way in a short time. Just look at the posters now for an idea of what things were like for people with disabilities back in the dark ages. Happy Independence Day to Americans with Disabilities.

LGBT community is not alone

A cab driver who picked my Seeing Eye dog and me up once had such a heavy accent that I couldn’t tell what he was saying. “Dog face on floor,” he demanded. “Saliva.” He repeated that word a few times to help me understand. “Saliva. Saliva. Saliva.” Was it his mantra?

That's Floey and Ray with Great Aunt Beth at the Indianapolis zoo. We didn't catch the elephant's name.

That’s Floey and Ray with Great Aunt Beth at the Indianapolis zoo. We didn’t catch the elephant’s name.

My face must have betrayed my confusion, because the driver went on to explain that he was Muslim, and in his religion dog saliva is impure. “Dog mouth is near me, seven times I must wash.”

The driver understood that United States law required him to pick up people with disabilities who use service dogs, he just wanted me to keep my dog’s face on the ground, far from him. Whitney wasn’t crazy about the idea, but I appreciated him explaining this to me, and I’ve long believed that reasonable accommodation goes both ways. I commanded “Down!” Whitney laid at my feet, and I placed my hand on her head to keep her there.

Once home, I looked this dog saliva thing up, and sure enough, the ruling comes from the hadith:

The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: “If a dog licks the vessel of any one of you, let him throw away whatever was in it and wash it seven times.”

That cab ride came to mind again last week after Indiana’s divisive Religious Freedom Restoration Act made news. If the Governor signed it the way it was originally worded, I wondered if Muslim cab drivers in Indiana would have the right to refuse people with disabilities who used service dogs.

As it happened, my niece Janet invited me to join her and her two youngest kids on a Spring Break road trip to Indianapolis last week, so we were there the very day the Indiana governor signed the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law. Nine-year-old Floey loves to practice her sighted-guide skills with Great Aunt Beth, and 6-year-old Ray never tires of folding and unfolding Great Aunt Beth’s white cane, so Whitney got a Spring Break, too: she stayed at home and played with my husband Mike while I was gone . I didn’t hear about the new amended law until I got back home — sounds like if Whitney comes along the next time I head to Indiana, the law is still on our side.

Uber’s policy about service dogs

Last night my Seeing Eye dog and I took an Uber ride to a special “accessible” performance of the play Great Expectations. From the Victory Gardens web site:

Wednesday, December 10 at 8:00 PM
Access Services include: Audio Description, Closed Captioning, Wheelchair accessibility, free UBER Transportation

All things being equal, I'd rather just walk.

All things being equal, I’d rather just walk.

Mike wasn’t interested in going, and I’ve been curious to see how a Uber driver would react to a rider with a service dog. So gee, if the ride to the theatre would be free, last night seemed like the perfect time to try it.

Regular cab drivers are required by law to pick up people with disabilities who travel with service dogs, but since Uber drivers are independent contractors driving private vehicles, they don’t have to adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Uber web site says it like this:

We leave the decision whether or not to transport pets at the discretion of your driver. When traveling with a pet, we recommend calling your driver as soon as you’ve placed your request (tap the arrow next to your driver’s information, then “CONTACT DRIVER”) to make sure they don’t mind taking your pet.

A number of legal complaints have been filed alleging Uber discriminates against blind and visually-impaired people who use guide dogs. The cases are still pending, but in a move that is presumably related, Uber announced in September that they had launched a new platform to “train uberX partners on the necessary knowledge and safety requirements for those with accessibility needs.” People like me who might need special assistance were instructed to link to UberASSIST on the Uber app so a driver who’d been through the special training would come pick us up.

Mike took a photo of Whitney in her Seeing Eye harness standing next to me to use on my Uber account. He helped me plug in the special promo code and find the Uber ASSIST link on my talking IPhone, but I was so intent on simulating what the experience would be like on my own that I wouldn’t let him come out on the sidewalk and wait for the driver with me. “You can watch from inside the door there to make sure I get a ride, but you have to hide,” I told him.

When I heard my talking iPhone call out “Uber driver arriving in three minutes” I headed outside with Whitney and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally I heard the door to our building squeak open behind me. “He’s right there,” Mike whispered.

”But I’m blind!” I scolded back. “I want him to have to figure out how to let me know he’s here!” Just then my phone started ringing.

  • Uber Driver: Beth! It’s your Uber driver. I’m here.
  • Me: Yeah, so am I.
  • Uber Driver: Where?

I’d been standing as tall as I possibly could, and Whitney was right at my side. Didn’t he see our photo on his app? Wasn’t it obvious I can’t see? I gave our address, the one the magic app is supposed to give to the driver, and explained that I’m blind, and I can’t see him.

  • Uber Driver (sounding confused: Oh. Well, I’m right here in front of your building.
  • Me: But I’m blind. I can’t see you.
  • Uber Driver (still sounding confused): Oh.
  • Me: Can you open the door and call out or something?
  • Uber Driver: Oh! Sorry. Yeah. Okay.

My driver got out, called my name, Whitney led me to the car, opened the back door, I got in, buckled my seatbelt, called Whitney to come in to sit on the floor at my feet, and we were off

On our ride I complimented my driver’s big car, told him Whitney appreciated all the room she had on the floor, and asked him if he’d received special notice that we’d asked for an Uber ASSIST vehicle. He had no idea what I was talking about.

I spent most of the rest of the ride explaining what Uber ASSIST is, how it’s supposed to train interested drivers on the best ways to assist people with disabilities or special needs. “I’ve never heard of that,” he said, adding that he thought ithe idea was “really interesting.”

So much for Uber ASSIST. We were late for the audio tour they’d planned before the play, but the condensed audio tour the show’s actors and actresses squeezed in for me was very helpful, and the performance was absolutely wonderful. Sighted friends who met me there said they’d drive Whitney and me home afterwards, and so I told myself what the heck, Uber ASSIST wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, but at least the ride over was free.

But then I got up this morning and checked out my Uber ASSIST online receipt. I’d been charged for the ride.

Where Whitney was

People have been asking if Whitney stayed with me while I was in the hospital last week.

She did not.

That's Greg with his and Lois' dogs Gamma and Griffin.

That’s Greg with his and Lois’ dogs Gamma and Griffin.

Legally, I could have had her in the room with me — Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act allows those of us who rely on service dogs to have them along in hospital rooms. All bets are off, however, if the dog constitutes either a “fundamental alteration of goods and services available for all” or a “direct threat to safety.” So while Whitney could have legally sat at my bedside once I was recovering in a regular hospital room, she would not have been allowed while I was in ICU. She wouldn’t have been with me in any sterile rooms (such as the operating room). Certain areas of the emergency room/departments would have been forbidden, and she wouldn’t have been able to ride in the ambulance with me to the hospital in the first place — even Mike had to follow behind in a cab.

Hospital staff cannot be made responsible for caring for a service dog while a patient with a disability is in the hospital, and I’m afraid my case left doctors and nurses with bigger problems to solve than figuring out when and where to take Whitney out to pee. The truth is, we never even thought of asking my Seeing Eye dog to sit still and behave at my hospital bedside while I recovered. It wouldn’t have been fair to an energetic ball of fur like her. I didn’t need her to guide me anywhere, and she would have been bored out of her mind.

Our dear friend Greg Schafer rushed to the waiting room after cardiologists recommended Mike call a friend to be there with him while I was being operated on. After surgery was over, Greg offered to stop by our apartment and fetch Whitney, take her home with with him for a few days. Greg and his wife Lois have a huge yard with two dogs and all sorts of other critters. Whitney spent the weekend there tracking deer and enjoying long walks while Mike spent time helping me recover at Northwestern Hospital.

Greg and Lois returned Whitney to Chicago on Sunday. After getting her settled in our apartment, they stopped by the hospital to regale Mike and me with details of ways Whitney spent time with their own beautiful dogs, Griffin and Gamma. Their stories really cheered me up. Whitney was there to greet Mike at home that night, and she was at the door waiting for me when I finally returned home Tuesday. A joyful reunion for sure.

That's Whit wearing her Gentle Leader.

That’s Whit wearing her Gentle Leader.

Surgeons had to cut my sternum to perform open-heart surgery, and until that bone heals I can’t let Whitney wear a harness and pull me. Trainers at the Seeing eye have dealt with graduates who have had open-heart surgery before. Until my sternum heals, they recommend I have Whitney wear a Gentle Leader, a collar designed to gently discourage dogs from pulling while walking on a leash. Mike comes along on my walks with Whitney, and each day the length of our cardio walks expands a minute or two. Neighbors are getting used to seeing me sauntering down the block with Whitney on my left, Mike on my right: a heart-healthy sandwich.

Friends have been volunteering to take Whitney on faster walks every day too, to keep her in shape. Others fill in for Mike when he isn’t available to take me on the slower-paced walks. Between these volunteer walkers, the friend who brought her violin over to perform for me, the ones who have sent or delivered food, friends who have sent cards and music CDs and concert tickets and audio books and get-well bracelets and a lounging gown and body lotion and flowers and gift cards and whew, you’ve all been so kind I need to stop here to take a breath before I go on: my lungs aren’t back to normal quite yet!


Okay, I’m back. Thanks to all of those friends and all of you blog readers who have left such encouraging comments here on the blog, I feel loved, and I feel grateful. I’m alive, and I’m healing. And I’m looking forward to getting on the road again with Whitney.

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