The ADA @ 30: “Beauty and the Built Environment”

Cover of Planet of the Blind....man and dog....

When thinking about the Americans with Disabilities Act we talk about the built environment. The term indicates the where, what, when of humanly constructed public spaces. Where do you need to go? Can you get there? When will you get there? 

What does access mean? If you’re a wheelchair user in New York City these questions are steepened by the most commonplace things—for instance the subway system is not accessible by elevators in most locations. Moreover the few elevators which do exist are usually out of order. 

This is the ADA @ 30: still largely ignored in our nation’s largest cities although the disabled are promised a better future. Plans released a year ago by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority propose creating forty new accessible subway stations. That’s ten percent of the total number of stations but it would represent an increase over the measly 25 per cent currently available. But seasoned disability rights activists know how this goes: the funding disappears before the ink is dry; delays force trade offs. Meantime no one fixes the existing broken elevators. 

The built environment needs creative thinking now more than ever. By making public spaces user friendly for all we create more than good train stations or schools—we challenge ourselves to embrace broad functionality and dare I say it—beauty. In a recent essay noted disability activist Steve Wright says: 

“There are some great designers who serve wheelchair users and other people with disabilities, but it is amazing how many plans I’ve reviewed — even for complete streets aimed to calm traffic and serve all — that have needlessly introduced multiple barriers to people with disabilities.

That is why I am calling on all professional organizations that impact the built environment to celebrate the ADA. Millions of their members can be inspired to build beautiful, graceful, human-scaled design that will make life more equitable for people who have mobility, sight, hearing and intellectual disabilities.”

As a poet who has a disability and who’s taught creative writing for years, I recognize Steve Wright’s brand of cheerleading. How many times have I extolled the joys and satisfactions of imagination? Think of the movie “Dead Poets Society” where John Keating, played by Robin Williams, practically turns himself inside out to inspire his downcast prep school students. I too have climbed on my desk, made the sleeves of my sweater into moose antlers, declaimed poetry with munificence as if I was a prince in a land of fairy tales. So I know hope when I see it. Be inspired to build beautiful, graceful, human-scaled designs. Try writing a little poetry. These things won’t hurt you. 

The ADA offers an opportunity, especially as we consider rebelling the infrastructure of the United States, to create inviting spaces. Not spaces where the disabled have to fight to get in. Not grudging accommodations. Not the threadworm second rate “improvements” that forget wheelchair access in the very auditorium which now has a ramp but no place for a real wheelchair—not the unpainted wheelchair lift in a thousand campus buildings across the US—those wheelchair lifts they were “forced” to put in, hence resented. Let’s end public spaces clouded by resentments. 

Steve Wright, again:

“We are living in the most partisan, divisive and frightened time in our nearly 250 years as a nation. Everyone has his or her idea of how we can begin to unify, heal, come together. Mine is to celebrate the ADA in the spirit of equity for all.”

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

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