Ed Eames is the President of the Fresno Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of California.
For the reputed forty-three million disabled Americans, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 has potentially far-reaching effects. It is a civil rights bill reaching into every facet of our lives including employment, transportation, leisure, recreation, etc. With its emphasis on rights rather than privileges, the ADA can become an important element in our fight for independence and full integration into American society. However, we as blind citizens must determine which provisions of the Act and its attendant regulations should be used to further our goals of security, equality and opportunity.
Based on recent experience, I want to explore three aspects of the bill that have implications for me and other NFBers. These are public transportation, car rental and prisoner rights.
As a result of the ADA transportation regulations published on September 6, 1991, every municipality with a public transportation system was mandated to establish an ADA advisory council. Members had to be drawn from the disability community, as well as the transportation providers. This committee had to work on a plan to comply with the regulations scheduled for implementation on January 26, 1992. I was asked to join this group in Fresno and currently serve as chairperson of the Fresno Area Express (FAX) ADA Advisory Council.
Since moving to Fresno five years ago and joining NFB, I have appeared before several committees dealing with the unmet needs of blind passengers using the public transportation system. A request I made year after year was to have drivers announce stops where two or more bus routes intersect and at other major intersection points. I was always assured this request would be taken into consideration, but nothing ever happened. Imagine my joy, when I discovered the ADA regulations required this accommodation! Not only would this be helpful to us as blind passengers. It would also help visitors not familiar with the bus system, seniors, those involved in conversations, and multitudes of others.
As chairperson of the ADA Advisory Council, I pushed for involvement of the disabled community in sensitivity training for drivers who would have to conform to the law. Many promises were made to Council members about involvement, but we were not consulted. Our Council strongly recommended discussions with the drivers to inform them of the various elements of the law. Once again, we got promises rather than action. Approximately a week before implementation, drivers were notified by mail about the need to announce stops. For several weeks after the starting date, daily reminders were given to the drivers by central radio dispatch indicating the legal requirement of making announcements. Needless to say, many drivers resisted this change in their usual routines.
As chairperson of the Council, I wanted to avoid a direct confrontation with the drivers while still obtaining compliance with the law. I invited bus driver union representatives to our meetings and got them involved in the advisory process. Despite these efforts, I continued to hear about bus drivers' violating the law by refusing to make announcements.
On June 2, 1992, Lon Kafton, secretary of our NFB chapter, and I decided to investigate these complaints. Lon and I rode in eight buses between the hours of 11:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Four drivers announced stops; four did not. I then filed formal complaints against the four non-announcers.
Shortly after filing the complaints, I contacted a local television station about this issue. They sent a reporter and a camera man to ride with me on two buses. In the presence of the television camera, both bus drivers announced stops. In spite of this compliance, the reporter put together a story based on my letter of complaint to the head of FAX and his response. Current reports indicate a much greater compliance with this element of the law. Since the filing of the complaints and the airing of the story, every bus driver with whom I have ridden has announced stops.
In April I flew to Phoenix, Arizona, with my wife, Toni, and a sighted friend, Deb Harper. Several weeks prior to the trip, we arranged to rent a car at the airport from Dollar car rentals. When we arrived at the airport, the counter clerk refused to rent to us because we wanted to charge the car on our credit card and have Deb as the driver. The clerk was adamant in his position that this was company policy. I asked to speak with his supervisor, who proceeded with the same litany: "It's company policy." Recognizing the futility of my efforts, I went to Budget car rentals, where I had no problem renting a car with Deb as listed driver and me as payee. Unfortunately, I had to pay more for the Budget car, since I had not made an advanced reservation.
After returning home, I filed a complaint with the United States Department of Justice. I was contacted at the end of June by a lawyer working for the Department. She is investigating the matter and believes my rights under the ADA have been violated. She suggested that in addition to the federal action, I hire a private lawyer and pursue the matter in the civil courts. This is an action I am considering.
Two years ago Willie, a member of our local NFB chapter, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to fifteen years to life in prison. He is appealing his conviction and wants access to the prison law library in order to participate in preparing his appeal. During the last two decades, federal courts have guaranteed these rights to participate in the appeals process for all prisoners.
Willie is legally blind and needs magnification in order to read print material. The authorities in the California Department of Corrections claim Willie has the same access rights to the law library as all other prisoners. In fact, they suggest that if he needs help locating necessary law books, a library clerk can provide assistance. When I pointed out this would not give Willie access to the material since he can't read the books, they did not think this was a relevant issue.
After several attempts to break through the bureaucracy, Toni and I, as NFB field representatives, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice in late January. Since our filing this complaint, Willie has been transferred to the California Medical Facility at Vacaville. However, he still has no access to the law library.
The Department of Justice is investigating our complaint. Richard Waters, the lawyer in charge of the case, has obtained permission to investigate conditions at Vacaville. He will be coming to California and has asked us to join him in his investigation. We plan to do so.
It should be obvious from these three ADA-related issues that this legislation can be used to further our goals of equal rights and opportunities. However, it is up to us to learn the full implications of the law and use it to further our cause. One of Dr. Jernigan's famous rallying cries was to join him on the barricades. In a similar fashion, I urge all NFBers to gather together on the ADA compliance battlefront.
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