The Americans with Disabilities Act: Nowhere to Go but Up for Local Fox News

A close up shot of an ADA accessible toilet.

Recently, the Longmore Institute was contacted by KTVU, our local Fox affiliate, about how a “SF firehouse gets costly ADA compliant makeover” to the tune of approximately $400,000.  What is it with all the cheap shots at the expensive ADA? It’s incredible how the media is filled with stories of the outrageous and the egregious – the $1000 grab bar ripped out for being an inch too low, the small business forced to close its doors because of having to redo its counter or seating area.  Sure, one can always find the most extreme and costly transgressions that hitch a ride along with anything big-ticket and far-reaching, be it the recent scandals over the Bay Bridge bolts, the bloated costs of California’s High Speed Rail, or – for that matter – big banks’ behavior since new finance laws went into effect in recent decades.

But the root of the resentment at the ADA suggests something more profound, a simmering sense that when it comes to disability, it’s somehow wrong to fix the environment rather than the person.  Where are the stories of disabled people really benefitting from the ADA to go to school, be able to work, eat in restaurants, ride public transportation, and who now, thanks to access contribute to the US economy as innovators and taxpayers? Where are the stories of able-bodied people who benefit from this same law every time they follow a sports event thanks to closed captioning in a noisy bar or effortlessly push a stroller over the curb?  And where are the stories that explore links between these curb cuts and the construction jobs they created or the great increase in product development and sales of rolling suitcases and other urban devices with wheels?

According to the Fox news story the Alleycats of Fire Station #1 south of Folsom Street couldn’t discern any advantages either, having been left “shaking their heads” after moving into their new $12-million facility.  The controversial renovations included three ADA-accessible restrooms on the second floor “where the general public is not allowed to go,” features that “won’t even benefit injured fire-fighters who aren’t allowed in the station.”  To reach these accessible facilities, they needed to install an especially roomy ADA-compliant elevator.  The camera pans over extra-large lockers with wheelchair symbols on them and shows footage from upstairs, “where hallways are wide and for wheelchairs.” The story ends with a lingering shot of a toilet as it mentions “advocates for the disabled at San Francisco’s Longmore Institute on Disability [who] state that ADA compliant features also help able-bodied people, and say it’s better to make space universally accessible now than have to upgrade in the future.”

The reporter, David Stevenson, got our message right.  But were we made to seem ridiculous as my Dad later claimed?

I struggled with his reprimand.  I’d been pleased that our message came through unaltered, figuring that even if the not-so-subtle association between us and a toilet said one thing, surely our enlightening words prompted some viewers to think differently.  But here was my 87 year-old father, one of my most vocal advocates, finding this as yet another case of Fox News and the right-wing media skewing stories at his daughter’s expense.  His visceral reaction to the segment’s using the Longmore Institute to show disability advocacy at its most extreme suggested that our case for finding unintended benefits for everyone in disability accommodations remains completely foreign.  Even though our message wasn’t taken out of context and was presented on its own terms, the report on Fox appeared to confirm the outrageousness of our stance and with it, our naïveté.

As with any news story, our message got distilled down to a shadow of its bare essence from a much longer interview.  David Stevenson seemed genuinely open to our examples, not in a preparing for a “gotcha!” but in a “whoa, never thought of that!” way. Assistant director Emily Beitiks described the ADA’s gifts to her when she was pregnant, which she blogged about on “Disability Remix” several weeks ago.  I invoked the history of curb cuts in the early 1970s, which most city officials initially decried for similar reasons to those concerning the firehouse renovations; for such huge costs, few would use them.  An official in Berkeley, home of one of the first curb cuts, allegedly argued that they were useless because one never saw disabled people in wheelchairs on the streets.

Such chicken-or-egg reasoning suggests profound ambivalence about the places people with disabilities should and shouldn’t occupy in US society. The ADA has brought us out in larger numbers with greater expectations and louder demands. People with disabilities have crossed a threshold that is simultaneously visible and invisible, a transgression that leaves some – disabled and nondisabled – uncomfortable without realizing it or knowing why.

The Fox story touched on this by opening with the hook that these were “renovations for those who might never become firefighters.”  True enough, at least for those on active duty.  But who wouldn’t appreciate more space in a locker and locker room, airy hallways (probably meeting basic safety standards as much as ADA ones), and an elevator that not only had made moving in easier but that might one day hoist a giant fridge, water heater, or any number of awkward-to-transport, costly objects useful in a fire station, from the hefty to the fragile?  Possibly these accommodations reminded these brave men and women of their own vulnerability, as if enjoying the same benefits as “the handicapped” would be tantamount to being one of them.

Often, disability reveals how all of us come with largely unexamined preconceptions about the world around us, to the point that we sometimes miss some obvious questions. In the case of KTVU and Fire Station #1: if they expected public visitors on the ground floor, wasn’t it surprising that the architect hadn’t planned for an accessible toilet downstairs?  Surely the hardworking staff servicing the trucks and preparing to race out to fight fires would have found it a godsend.  And what about that grateful little wheelchair-riding kid with a full bladder and a love of fire engines visiting the station with classmates?

Link to the news segment here.