In many cases, the Americans with Disabilities Act affects every resident around the nation — from public restrooms to parking lots, walkways to seating arrangements.
Twenty-five years ago, ADA was signed into law. For those who experience a disability firsthand, July 26, 1990 has meant an enforcement of civil rights that they can’t imagine living without.
Part 1 of KTVA’s two-part series is a look into a day in the life of an Alaskan with a disability.
Overheard at breakfast
Ric Nelson often starts his day with breakfast from Kriner’s Diner on C Street — a full order of biscuits and gravy, a sausage patty and a tall glass of cold milk.
When Nelson’s order arrives at the booth, the sausage patty initially takes up the entire saucer, as large portions are a staple of the midtown restaurant. But Nelson can’t grab his knife and fork and dig in just yet. Eating breakfast is a little different for the 32-year-old. He has cerebral palsy, a group of disorders that make certain tasks difficult, such as feeding himself or swallowing whole foods.
That’s where Chad Niewendorp, Nelson’s friend and day habilitation provider, comes in.
“Can I meet you up there at the counter?” Niewendorp asks the server, pulling a blender from his bag.
Moments later, the sound of the blades grinding Nelson’s food can be heard among the chatter of the diner. Most distinct and most audible is Nelson’s voice – as he tries to articulate every syllable of every word. Cerebral palsy also affects his speech, and Nelson uses an interpreter (Niewendorp) to communicate.
He says people see his various physical disabilities and automatically assume he has an intellectual disability as well.
“Yeah, maybe I talk a little different, because it’s hard for me to say big words,” Nelson notes. “But I know what I am saying … Yes, I need help. But that’s physical help, not mental help.”
Soon, Niewendorp returns with Nelson’s order.
“I think I turned it back into flour,” Niewendorp laughs, setting the plate of finely ground biscuits on the table.
The two say Kriner’s is one of the few restaurants with an accessible outlet in the dining area — and a staff that doesn’t mind a few minutes of the whirring sound the machine makes.
“We go to some places and we have to blend his food next to a trash can,” said Niewendorp, as he offers a spoonful of breakfast to Nelson. “That’s not very sanitary.”
Plus, he adds, exemplary customer service can be appreciated among all patrons, disabled or otherwise.
Niewendorp has been Nelson’s interpreter and Day Hab provider for about four months, funded through a Medicaid waiver. But the two have known each other since they were both in their mid-20s. Nelson says he’s had about 20 different interpreters in the past eight years.
The two say they do well as friends who happen to work together. They share a sense of humor and they both have a disability (Niewendorp is autistic). They also admit that the personal-professional line blurs sometimes, especially when societal views of people with disabilities takes its toll.
“We’ll go to a store and I’ll interpret for him,” explains Niewendorp, giving a scenario the two encounter multiple times a day. “Instead of looking at him and speaking to him — because he asked the question — they look at me and reply. And they don’t even acknowledge him until I point it out.”
It’s something Nelson says hurts his feelings and makes him feel like “a second-class citizen.”
As Nelson and Niewendorp are mid-conversation, a stranger stops by the table on his way out of the restaurant. He extends his hand to Nelson.
“You give me more inspiration than other people,” the man says. “To sit and listen to you and what you stand for and what you’re doing. God bless you, man.”
It’s a gesture that has left Nelson smiling. The day is off to a good start.
“I’m a person who doesn’t like to hide.”
Usually, Nelson uses a motorized wheelchair to get around. After breakfast, however, he wants to walk out of Kriner’s — the same way he walked in, with a little help from Niewendorp.
Cerebral palsy (CP) presents itself in many forms. Motor impairments are the most common. But it’s estimated that up to 50 percent of children with CP will have problems with intellectual functioning — which includes thinking and problem solving, according to the National Institutes of Health.
In Nelson’s case, his impressive resume speaks to his cognitive capabilities. He recently graduated with his master’s degree in public administration from the University of Alaska Southeast. A UAS sticker is proudly displayed on the back of his wheelchair.
But for those who don’t notice the university paraphernalia, it takes just one conversation with Nelson to see that he can carry his own, Niewendorp says.
Those conversations, however, are sometimes hindered. Nelson says he has to get past the stares first, a frustration he’s had for 32 years now. After breakfast, he and Niewendorp take a trip to a local mall. The gaping eyes from children he doesn’t mind, but Nelson says the stares from adults are a slight disruption in his day-to-day routine.
“It still takes a lot of patience for me,” said Nelson of the looks he gets in public. “C’mon, we’re in 2015. You should’ve seen a lot of people who have disabilities by now.”
Nelson says he developed CP after a sort of freak accident happened right after he was delivered in the hospital.
“I was born normal,” he said. “There was nothing wrong with me.”
After everyone took turns holding newborn Nelson, a nurse-in-training took him to clean him. When she laid him face-down, Nelson says he stopped breathing and died. Four and a half minutes later, he says the doctors were able to bring him back to life, but the damage was done. A lack of oxygen to the brain had left him with CP.
“The doctors told my parents, ‘He will be a vegetable for the rest of his life,’” Nelson said. “’He should be dead by the time he’s 1.’”
Now, at 32 years old, Nelson says he’s “still kickin’.” He was just a child when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was made law. Enacted in 1990, ADA gave civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities, breaking down many of the barriers they faced in regards to education, employment and even public accommodations.
Though the fight for equality has gotten easier over the years, Nelson can instantly recall a period of discrimination in high school — where people focused on his disability instead of what he was capable of.
That sparked a fire inside Nelson that, he says, now consumes his life.
“I have had it in my heart to want to fight for people with disabilities,” he said. “Because I know not all of them can fight for themselves. So I’m here to help them fight for what they need.”
For eight years, Nelson has served on the Alaska Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education. The council is composed of 26 members appointed by the governor. Nelson is a former chair.
Through the council, Nelson has worked with his fellow members to work toward equal access in Alaska’s housing, employment, special education, independent living and transportation sectors, among others. But more than that, Nelson makes it a point to take trips to the mall, local restaurants, etc. as much as possible.
He believes if he’s the one who has to brave a sea of stares to make a change, he will.
“People still believe that people like me should be placed in an institution and not be out in the community,” he said. “I’m a person who doesn’t like to hide.”
Going to the top
The questions individals with a disability want to be asked are often the ones they don’t get asked enough, Nelson says.
That includes questions like “Do you want to work?” he says, hopefully followed by “What do you want to do?”
Later in the afternoon, Nelson is scheduled for a meeting with a Division of Vocational Rehabilitation counselor, who operates under the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
“I want to work really bad,” Nelson said. “I really think I can give back to society.”
The job Nelson wants is essentially one he’s already had through the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education. If hired, he’d be essentially switching from board member to staff member.
When he talks about the prospect, he lights up instantly.
“I’m very excited about it because it is something that I love to do,” Nelson said. “And I can educate businesses on how to hire and maintain people with disabilities and how the ADA plays into that.”
Equal opportunity under ADA applies to the workplace as well. If you have a disability and are qualified to do a job, the ADA protects you from job discrimination on the basis of your disability.
Nelson says he doesn’t want to “live off the system” — something he says is a common misconception.
“We want to have a career, we want to make money,” he says of individuals with disabilities. “We are the most kindest, loving, hard-working people out there. We are dedicated to what we do. And we don’t give up, because we had to fight for everything that we’ve gotten.”
And when the reward comes, like Nelson’s induction to Alaska Journal of Commerce’s 2015 “Top Forty Under 40” class, the struggle is what makes it all the more sweet.
“So go ahead and say people with disabilities can’t achieve their goals and aspirations,” he challenges. “I did, and I’m still going to the top.”
Part 2 of this series takes a look at how far Alaska has come in 25 years of ADA. Tune into KTVA Nightcast on Monday, July 27.