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Reasonable accommodation

The Americans With Disabilities Act, which turns 30 this month, steered Jim Terry toward a more accessible career

Reasonable accommodation

(Barry Thumma/AP)

The day in 1990 President George H.W. Bush inked the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), history and weather cooperated in a fitting way. At least, that’s what Irving King Jordan remembers.

Back then, he was president of Gallaudet University, the only university in the United States devoted specifically to the education of the deaf. Jordan—the first deaf president of Gallaudet—took his place on the South Lawn of the White House among 3,000 spectators soaking up sun and ceremonial signing alike. He smiles at the memory: “It was a shining moment and a shining day.” 

The throng that “shining day” included people with seeing eye dogs, people riding on gurneys, and people with hard-to-detect cognitive impairments. Up front, an armless Church of Christ minister stood smiling near center stage, and in a hint of foreshadowing, two men in wheelchairs flanked Bush. The president couldn’t guess he’d one day be in their shoes, in a wheelchair counting curb cuts and ramps as part of his own accessibility needs.

Jim Terry never guessed curb cuts and ramps would be a big part of his life, either. The University of Southern California School of Architecture graduate was busy designing medical and university facilities for the firm his father started in Birmingham, Ala., when ADA regulations came down the pike. The landmark legislation that marks its 30th anniversary this month promised sweeping changes in America’s public spaces and workplaces. It certainly brought changes to his.

“We’d just had two of the largest projects in our firm’s history put on hold,” he remembers. “We realized that helping our clients comply with the new laws could be a source of needed work.”

Enacted on July 26, 1990, the ADA prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities and required “places of public accommodations” to be made accessible to them by January 1992. Spurred by the deadline, Terry and architect Bill Hecker dug into the law’s requirements and quickly found them to be complicated and pervasive. The firm changed course: Rather than do the work of compliance for their clients, Evan Terry Associates became accessibility experts and instructors. They taught their clients how to comply for themselves.

It was a smart move. While other architectural firms stuck to their drawing tables, Terry traveled as an ADA compliance consultant to places like the U.S. Capitol, Madison Square Garden, and Stanford University. His firm noted their need for refigured bathroom fixtures, van-accessible parking lot striping, captioned jumbotrons, modified elevators, and hundreds of other changes that allowed people with disabilities to use their facilities and services.

Ronald Pollard/Genesis

Jim Terry in his Birmingham office (Ronald Pollard/Genesis)

Now 66, Terry has helped author 15 books on access compliance; he’s trained thousands to become ADA informed; and his firm has launched a website that offers official documents, how-to videos, expert opinions, and design ideas to anyone wrestling with accessibility issues.

The ADA’s framers structured the legislation to integrate people with disabilities into mainstream life, but some bosses balk at adapting practices and spending money to make their services or workrooms accessible. Terry calls it “inertia against change,” and he gets animated when he describes how compliance can make good business sense. He recalls a bank client who was concerned about the ADA provision that required companies to communicate effectively with the disabled. While Congress was still debating the law, the bank’s officials—thinking they had 10 visually impaired customers at most—decided to be proactive and offer Braille statements. A year later they were printing more than a thousand each month.

“It turns out there are lots of people who want Braille statements,” Terry explains. “Parents would come back and say, ‘I’ve had to read my son’s statements to him every month, and he’s 35 years old. He would rather do that for himself. This is a great deal, so we’re moving our family accounts. Oh, and by the way, my husband is moving his business account over, too, because you guys are doing the right thing for them.’”

Possible profit and sure-thing tax incentives aside, ADA compliance can be costly. Noncompliance can be costlier. In March 2019, a federal judge ruled transportation authorities in New York violated the ADA when they spent $27 million to renovate a Bronx subway station—but didn’t add elevators.

Still, Terry sees the ADA as more than a civil rights law and says Christians shouldn’t need it to motivate them to treat fairly the disabled: “The command in Leviticus to not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind is reason enough to clear schools and restaurants and shopping malls of barriers.”

That goes for discrimination in the workplace, too. “Most people would really like to work. It’s fulfilling. It’s Scriptural. Are there reasonable accommodations that can allow people to do the essential functions of their job? Then make them. Are there stereotypical attitudes based on irrational analysis of real capabilities? Then change them.”

Terry walked his talk when his firm hired a young man with quadriplegia. To complete his computer reports, the employee needed voice recognition software and an updated soundboard—pre-Siri features with a $3,000 price tag. That’s six times the amount the Department of Labor estimates an employer spends on the average calculable worker accommodation.

The new hire soon became the fastest typist in the office.

Mainstream mosaic

Few, if any, public spaces don’t contain proof of the extensive ADA footprint. Even the most unlikely bathroom will have a grab bar installed by a 19-inch (max) tall toilet, right next to a wall-mounted sink with wrap pipes and 6 inches of foot clearance—all designed with wheelchair accessibility in mind.

Things were different when injured veterans returned from America’s world wars. Their attempts at coping in wheelchair-unfriendly public terrain made disability issues more visible, but decades would come and go before the movement garnered major success: passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That act, twice vetoed by President Nixon before his consent, was the first law to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities. Seventeen years later, the ADA upped the ante by requiring reasonable accommodations in public spaces and workplaces for people with disabilities. At its signing, President George H.W. Bush said he hoped people with disabilities would be given the opportunity to “blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream.”

But critics maintain the ADA has yet to deliver on its banner promise to increase significantly employment numbers among the disabled. The employment-to-population ratio for working-age people with disabilities was only 19 percent in 2018, compared with 66 percent for those with no disabilities. The data is hard to untangle, though. As the ADA lessened the stigma of disabilities, the number of Americans claiming disabled status increased to as many as 1 in 5, according to the last census. That trend makes defining disabilities—and the capabilities of people with disabilities—complicated business, and not only for those involved on the accessibility side.

The Social Security Administration employs investigators to check out the validity of all kinds of disability claims, from back pain to agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder that can involve fear of crowds. Investigations often initiate at the request of a doctor who suspects fraud and wants to ask a patient bearing application forms, “How come I’m working, and you aren’t?”

One reason: Disability is lucrative.

In Mississippi, a state that routinely ranks among the top five for doling out disability benefits, monthly checks average $969. That was temptation enough for a middle-aged Forrest County woman to claim debilitating rheumatoid arthritis. She applied for benefits, and since the amount is based on prior income, she got them to the tune of $2,000-plus per month. The bank deposits went on for years until an investigator videotaped her teaching a surprising class at the local gym—aerobics. —K.H.

Kim Henderson

Kim Henderson

Kim is a World Journalism Institute graduate and senior correspondent for WORLD. During her career as a homeschool mom, she worked as a freelance writer. Kim resides in Mississippi with her family. Follow her on Twitter @kimhenderson319.