By Alicia Green, Point Park News Service:
When Joseph Wassermann, 81, used to cross the street, he had to depend on the sound of traffic and his own confidence to get him across safely.
Unlike some people who can rely on both their sight and hearing, Wassermann, a retired teacher from Oakland, never had that option because he is blind.
“The biggest obstacles were crossing streets and intersections,” Wasserman said in a telephone interview. “There weren’t any (accessible pedestrian signals).”
The accessible pedestrian signals Wassermann refers to was one of the many developments that came about as a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal law passed in 1991 that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in regards to employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications and governmental activities.
As the ADA celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, many people with disabilities have looked back at how it changed their lives for the better — while also noting that much work still needs to be done.
“(The ADA) is great for people who are wheelchair-users, great for people with visual losses, and good for people with hearing losses, but (there is) not 100 percent satisfaction,” Paul Richard McGann, 62, who is deaf-blind, said in an email. “There are issues that people are trying to avoid.”
McGann said there still needs to be better technology for people with both hearing and visual losses and better services that would give them better opportunities to have “good independent living skills.” Reporter Alicia Green describes what it was like to communicate with McGann in this first-person sidebar.
He also expressed concern about how little Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disabled people receive as well as the lack of jobs available for those with disabilities. The SSI is designed to provide aged, blind and disabled people who have little to no income with money for food, clothing and shelter.
“It is very sad that disabled (people) live in low income and are not able to get enough support,” McGann said.
However, he said the Social Security Disability Insurance, which provides benefits to those with disabilities that have worked long enough and paid Social Security taxes is “great.”
As a resident of Brookline, McGann said he believes that Pittsburgh needs to improve in a lot of areas, including working on sidewalks and improving employment for disabled people.
Wassermann, who works with McGann on Pittsburgh’s City-County Task Force on Disabilities (CCFTD), said the group has produced short television clips about sidewalk improvements, including getting litter, sandwich boards and outdoor seating off of sidewalks.
“All the kinds of things that sometimes make a sidewalk not particularly impassable, but certainly difficult for people in wheelchairs, people traveling with mobility canes (and) dog guides,” Wassermann said.
And while Pittsburgh’s ADA Coordinator Richard Meritzer said he agrees that the city still needs to make some adjustments, he also sees the positives the ADA has done for the city.
“I think what’s really improved are the issues with mobility and communication,” Meritzer said in a telephone interview. “We still have a long way to go in commerce and employment. That’s the next horizon.”
Meritzer noted that most of the city has curb ramps and is adding more, that all of Pittsburgh’s buses are now handicapped accessible and that there are four cab companies with accessible cabs. He said the city is currently in the process of integrating city-wide accessible pedestrian signals since there are some old “chirpers” in Oakland and the Cultural District.
“We’re essentially removing any barriers for people to get where they’re going,” Meritzer said.
Although he praised Pittsburgh for its work so far, Meritzer elaborated on what issues still need to be addressed.
“We need more accessibility for businesses and more accessibility information in businesses,” Meritzer said. “Most restaurants still don’t have braille menus. One of the biggest complaints we have about the airport is that while televisions can be captioned, most of the time the restaurants and bars at airports don’t put the captioning on. In commerce, people with disabilities needs are often not understood or [are] overlooked.”
He said the city introduced a one-step program, which “encourages businesses to become accessible because we don’t have any right to force them to be accessible.” This is done, he said, by “streamlining the process and waiving all the city fees and identifying architects that will do the work for free so that it would cost (businesses) very little to replace a step with a ramp.”
According to Meritzer, 10 businesses have currently been through the program. Sometimes, he said he comes across businesses that don’t want to make those accessibility changes.
“We’re gently encouraging by informing them they can be sued,” Meritzer said. “In Oakland, there is actually someone who is out there suing businesses right now. We’re willing to work with them to alleviate those problems.”
In regards to employment, an issue both Wassermann and McGann have concerns about, Meritzer said local governments are “working very, very hard” on it. This comes at an important time as October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
Right now, Pittsburgh is also working on making sure the city’s webpage is compliant with the latest requirements for web accessibility for those who are visually impaired. The city-county task force recently completed Hospital Compliance Guidelines for the Deaf, Deaf-Blind, and Hard-of-Hearing, and is in the process of creating guidelines for the intellectually and developmentally disabled.
“They’re manuals that the hospitals can use to make sure that they’re compliant under the law,” Meritzer said. “People were coming to the task force saying that they were going to the hospitals and not being able to get interpreters or they were waiting forever for interpreters. No one knew who was supposed to get them.”
“The whole complication of hospitalization,” Wassermann said. “The forms (and) the communicating that needs to be done with severely disabled individuals, particularly the deaf-blind (and) the severely mentally-retarded. A lot of improvement needs to be made with disability groups like that in terms of being able to communicate in the emergency room.”
Wassermann said people with disabilities need to know what they’re signing. He also said there needs to be some changes made in regards to prescription drugs.
“It’s only been within the last five years, even though the ADA was passed 25 years ago, that blind people have access to accessible material – either braille or audio versions of their prescriptions, the side effects (and) how often you need to take this or that,” Wassermann said. “Particularly individuals who are on a lot of medication, it’s a great deal to keep track of. Previously, we had marked our own bottles, but usually didn’t know anything about the dos and don’ts, the side effects. That’s something we need to know about.”
In 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau said, “Approximately 57 million Americans have a disability.” In Pennsylvania alone, a Disability Status Report conducted by Cornell University concluded that the overall percentage of people with a disability in all ages was 13.4 percent, meaning 1,684,900 individuals reported that they had one or more disabilities.
“People with disabilities live in the community, and they want to have lives like everybody else,” said Chava Kintisch, director of civic engagement and government affairs for the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, in a telephone interview. “Meeting with and interacting with people with disabilities, understanding what they want, what their needs are and what’s important to them is really key for the government and for the public.”
Kintisch continued, “The Americans with Disabilities Act talks about integration in the community. Of course, we want to see that happen to the fullest extent. We think about disability as ability. People with disabilities (and) everybody else, we’re people of all abilities.”