July 23--I have a good friend in Boston who was hit by a car while jogging, spent four months in a coma and has walked with a crutch since she awoke, rehabbed and rejoined the living.
Deborah, a former Boston marathoner and mother of two, once ranted about able-bodied persons' disgraceful use of the often sole wheelchair-accessible stalls in bathrooms. Her words have stuck with me but, I admit, I've cheated over the years -- sashaying too many times into the roomier restrooms.
No longer! The temporary inaccessibility of accessible facilities was a common refrain among the Oklahomans I interviewed for the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Among other things, the act required wheelchair-accessible parking at places of business and accessible doorways, elevators and bathrooms in every new or restored building.
Did you know the man who's regarded as the chief architect of the ADA is an Okie?
Lex Frieden, who teaches at a college in Houston, grew up in Alva, was injured in a car accident his freshman year at Oklahoma State University and, through years of research on people living with disabilities and having the right skills at the right place and the right time, became one of the nation's leading advocates for people with disabilities.
The ADA king ironically faced accessibility issues when he came home over Memorial Day weekend for a school reunion.
Cathy Borja, a chief administrative assistant at Oklahoma Natural Gas, told me a seemingly able-bodied lady once jumped all over her, after she wheeled herself to the front of a line to use the single wheelchair-accessible stall. The lady told Borja she too needed that stall. Riiight.
Another time, Borja went to the ladies room during a Thunder game and found the only stall occupied was the wheelchair-accessible one, the only one she could use. When she returned to her seat, her husband asked her what took her so long. Arrrrgh.
Of course, I -- and other offenders -- rationalize we'll "only be a second." But when you gotta go, you gotta go. And people with disabilities need accessible facilities to go.
Oklahoma City disability advocate Willis Washington thinks we need to rethink the design of public bathrooms. "Why not make them all accessible?" he said. At the very least, he recommends slapping this sticker on wheelchair-accessible stalls: "Please make available for patrons who have no choice."
Another thing to steer clear of is infringing on the striped zones that abut parking spots for people with disabilities. That's the space that motorists with wheelchair-accessible vans -- like Borja and retired television newswoman Pam Henry, a person who had polio and the last Poster Child for the March of Dimes -- need to unload and load their wheelchairs.
And one final thing: Sammye Cravens of Public Strategies, who used a scooter while she was undergoing treatments for cancer, notes motorists all too often pull up too close to sidewalks, so the front of their cars overhang sidewalks and people who use wheelchairs, or scooters, can't get by.
Jody Harlan, communications director of the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services, is passionate about the issues facing the clients her agency serves. The civil rights of a large minority -- people with disabilities, or one in six Oklahomans -- often go overlooked, Harlan said. "It's all about civil rights," she said, "the right to live independently and the right to get a job."
Harlan said the words we choose to talk about people with disabilities can spread awareness and enlightenment, or can perpetuate prejudice and misconception. Americans with disabilities want to be referred to respectfully, as people first, she said.
DO say a person with a disability, a person who uses a wheelchair, a person who is blind, a person with cerebral palsy, a person with mental retardation, caused by and born with. DON'T say the handicapped, lame, crippled with, victim of, sightless, invalid, stricken with, wheelchair-bound, confined to a wheelchair, patient (except in medical context), deformed, afflicted by, birth defect, deaf mute, or deaf and dumb.
Along with using toilets meant for the disabled, I'm sure I've misspoken too. But from early on, I've known people with disabilities as people. Two of my parents' closest friends were people with disabilities. Both were attorneys. The late Toney Webber was injured in a car accident and used a wheelchair. Jerry Tubb, who still practices, had polio and used crutches.
One of my favorite memories as a child was when Mr. Tubb left our home on an icy wintry night and slipped and fell getting into his car. My father, whom I've since lost; another buddy of theirs who also has passed away; and Mr. Tubb, who wasn't hurt, all roared with laughter, while my mother, sister, brother and I peered out the front door window with big smiles on our faces.
My father, you see, treated everybody as people first -- and laughed when Oliver Hardy or Stan Laurel slipped on banana peels or real people slipped on ice. I loved that about him.
This Sunday, in celebration of the ADA, The Oklahoman will share the stories of several real people who live and work with disabilities. I hope you'll join the conversation.
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