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Disabled still fighting for equal access


When Rasheem Broughton goes to shake hands, it's a bit like lifting a broken wing. His hand floats in midair and his grip is soft and loose.

Broughton has spent much of his adult life in a wheelchair. A gunshot wound when he was in his teens left him a quadriplegic with multiple disabilities.

But it doesn't hold him back or keep him from doing what he wants to do, he says. He works and is an active member of the community.

"You learn to roll with it, quite honestly," Broughton says. "You learn to take the obstacles as they come."

People with disabilities are in many cases no different from everyone else. They want good jobs, quality housing, and to spend time with family and friends. They like to shop, dine out, and go to movies and the theater.

Most of the time, it's not their disabilities that stop them from doing these things. The challenges come down to a combination of mobility, accessibility, and the need for stronger enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act, they say.

"We don't have concerns about our physical state," says Stephanie Woodward, an attorney and director of advocacy for the Center for Disability Rights. "When you say physical concern, we say 'disability.' That's who we are and we're very proud of who we are and our disability identity."

Woodward, who sports a hot pink wheelchair, says she grocery shops the same as everybody else.

"I will be found in the pizza roll section at least once a week, but it's no more amazing when we do it than when a nondisabled person does it," she says.

Mobility is critically important to the disabled, says Ericka Jones, an advocate at CDR. It's more complicated than it is for a nondisabled person, and not something you can take for granted, she says.

"It's a different beast for people who are born with a disability compared to those who acquire their disability," she says. But for both, there are issues with transportation that require advance planning.

"You constantly have to figure out how you're going to get from place to place," Jones says. "You can't ever decide on a whim that you want to go somewhere or do something that may involve transportation."

Jones once spent Christmas in the Buffalo airport eating vending machine snacks because the airline didn't have the proper equipment to get her on the plane, she says.

When you have to use a wheelchair, that becomes a major consideration in everything you do, Woodward says.

"You can't just hop in a taxi and you can't just hop in with an Uber driver – we don't hop anywhere," she says. "Those of us who do have a car, we either have a lift system or a ramp into our vehicle and those are incredibly expensive."

But mobility is only part of the problem. Sometimes business owners, builders, and developers fail to comply with the American with Disabilities Act, which often results in a denial of access to someone who is disabled.

The ADA, which passed nearly 30 years ago, prohibits discrimination against people who are disabled and ensures equal opportunity in terms of employment, accommodations, and transportation.

A disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially interferes with one or more major life activities, such as sight, hearing, or cognition. For many people, that activity is walking, Woodward says.

"But what concerns us is our physical environment," she says. "I'm concerned that where I want to go will discriminate against me by not allowing me in. As a lawyer, if I can't get into a building, that prevents me from doing my job."

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren is especially strong at promoting accessibility, Woodward says.

"Her administration takes it very seriously and we're very excited about that," Woodward says. She cites the Clear the Snow so All Can Go campaign, a city ordinance that requires property owners to clear the snow off their sidewalks or pay a fine.

But access even in the middle of summer remains a serious problem, Woodward says. Some businesses still don't meet the minimum standards for providing access, including some that have been renovated. It's not prohibitively expensive to fix an entrance, she says; if there are multiple steps, the business may be required to provide a ramp in a new or different entrance.

David Stever, owner of Stever's Candies on Park Avenue, did that during a remodel, and the ramp on his Vassar Street entrance gets a lot of use, he says.

Even those small one-inch bumps in doorways can be a major problem, especially to someone like Rasheem Broughton, who is in a power wheelchair.

"When you're trying to full-throttle a power chair to jump that inch- high curb, it doesn't always go straight in," he says. "You can go side to side." Broughton has scraped his hands and even broken parts of his chair trying to overcome those bumps.

"Compliance is a cost of doing business," Woodward says. Ignorance about the law or neglect is not an excuse, and sometimes legal action is required, she says.

"We're portrayed as villains," she says. "I don't think we're villains for trying to get to the same place you can get into without even thinking about it."