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25 years of ADA, Part 2: Alaskans weigh in on how far we’ve come

By Sierra Starks 8:16 PM July 28, 2015
ANCHORAGE –

Part 2 of KTVA’s ADA series is a look at how far our state has come in 25 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act — and a look at what lies ahead as Alaskans head into the next 25 years.

A major milestone in civil rights

At an event the muni hosted Monday to celebrate 25 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Dr. Jayne Fortson shared her story.

A caving accident in 1975 changed her life forever, she says. She would have to adapt to life in a wheelchair, but it didn’t deter her dreams. After college in New York, she wanted to attend medical school.

“One of my applications, when I sent it, it was returned to me with the application fee,” she said. “And they said, ‘I don’t think medicine is a very feasible goal for you – good luck in your career.'”

Fortson went on to graduate from Northwestern University Medical School and served as the graduation speaker for her class. She moved to Alaska in 1990, the same year ADA was signed into law. Many around the muni now know her as their dermatologist.

“It’s because of things like the ADA that I’m able to function and work full time and contribute to society,” Fortson said.

On May 29, 2014, then-Gov. Sean Parnell signed House Bill 211, making Alaska an “Employment First” state. It was a measure designed to get local and state agencies to work together in making employment a priority for individuals living with a disability.

Ric Nelson, who served as chair of the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education at the time, was part of the collective push to get Alaska lawmakers to pass HB 211. At Monday’s event, he said he hopes the Employment First legislation would help people with disabilities obtain not only employment that is meaningful but work they are fairly compensated for.

“Before the ADA, people were destined to live a life of poverty,” Nelson said. “Children did not have the right to be integrated into our school systems.”

It was an unequal playing field that set them up for failure later down the line, he says.

“Eight out of 10 people with diabilites are not in the workforce,” said Reinhart, executive director of the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education. “The number of people with disabilities who look for jobs and don’t find them is still very high.”

Nelson says the goal is for him and other individuals with disabilities to showcase what they’re capable of — which will only be accomplished through public acceptance and awareness. He’s hoping the anniversary of a new job will be something he’s celebrating when ADA’s 26th anniversary rolls around.

Progress and possibilities

Leah Boltz says before her daughter was born, the Americans with Disabilities Act wasn’t exactly on her radar like it is now. Her 8-year-old has spinal bifida and uses a wheelchair to get around.

“You don’t think about disabilities unless they’re in your life somehow,” said Boltz. “I never would’ve thought about any of that. But when it becomes the focus of your life, then suddenly you’re aware.”

Now, Boltz’s radar detects a problem immediately whenever she has difficulty getting her daughter in and out of places, up and down stairs or just around town in general. In a place that boasts it’s the No. 1 city in America to “Live. Work. & Play.,” trips to the muni’s inaccessible playgrounds left Boltz unsure of how true that was.

“We all live in Alaska because this is a huge playground for all of us,” she said. “And I want my daughter … and everybody in the state to have places where we can all access that recreation.”

She and a few other Anchorage moms got together to push for inclusivity through their grassroots group called Parks for All. The result was Anchorage’s first fully accessible playground at Cuddy Family Midtown Park.

“When we brought it to them, they thought, ‘Oh, this makes sense,'” Boltz said of the Anchorage Park Foundation. “We didn’t have anybody who wasn’t supportive of it.”

That support extends into Anchorage’s new administration under Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.

“One of the goals and one of the visions I have for this city is to make sure it’s accessible to everybody,” said Berkowtiz. “Because if you’re not free to come and go anywhere you choose to come and go, you’re not as free as you can be.”

Boltz’s daughter needs help getting around in her wheelchair now. But one day, she’ll hopefully be able to venture out on her own.

“She doesn’t have enough power and the strength to get through all the snow in her wheelchair,” said Boltz of the winter months, adding that even in the summer, managing the muni’s walkways poses a challenge. “Which, that works when they’re little, but as you try to teach them independence and get them to live more independently, that’s a real challenge.”

A new age of ADA compliance

Curbs like the one at the intersection of O’Malley Road and Old Seward Highway — lined with cracks, not sloped to meet the street correctly and not equipped with the yellow tactile warning — aren’t up to the most current ADA standards. Getting the state’s curbs and other pedestrian facilities up to code is the goal of the state’s new ADA Transition Plan.

“We were mandated to do a transition plan when ADA was enacted in 1990,” says Jacquie Braden with DOT’s Civil Rights Office. “But we have never done the kind of transition plan we’re doing now.”

On any given day, DOT workers can be seen around town inspecting the state-maintained pedestrian and public facilities. Armed with tape measurers, inclinometers and clipboards, they are checking for the following:

  • 48 inches of sidewalk, 60 inches in some cases to ensure wheelchairs can turn around
  • Yellow tactile warnings on curbs for the visually impaired
  • Accessible height of all crosswalk buttons
  • Adequate crosswalk timing
  • Ensuring sidewalks and ramps are sloped correctly
  • Cracks in the sidewalk, which are “easy fixes,” Braden says — just give her office a call.

Braden doesn’t know why it took so long for Alaska DOT to develop a transition plan, but she says now, ADA plays a role in every project the state rolls out moving forward.

“You assume there’s an ADA component to every road project, you assume that you’re going to have to go through and make sure that the facilities are accessible,” Braden said. “So that’s been exciting, and it’s good to see. It makes my job a lot easier than it would’ve been 20 or 25 years ago.”

Twenty-five years of ADA to Braden means a new age of compliance — going from the minimum ADA standards to as much inclusivity as possible. To residents who need it the most, like Boltz and her family, it’s progress that keeps her calling the Last Frontier her home.

“I hear from a lot of people that say, ‘We’re going to move out of state where we can find somewhere more accessible or where there’s more opportunity for our kids to be independent,'” said Boltz. “And we don’t want that. We want to live here, we live here for a reason.”

Contact Sierra Starks at sstarks@ktva.com and @bdwpdotcom

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