Gary Horton: Give thanks for ADA laws

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This next Wednesday I’ll be becoming seriously handicapped.

At least for a few days, or maybe longer, I’m going to face some serious pain like I’ve never faced before. I’ll be one of those bent-over, grimacing, shuffling old guys you see moving way too slowly around the prune section of the grocery store.

Next Wednesday I go under the knife for back surgery. Not some namby-pamby little thing, but a full-on fusion of L4-L5 along with all the fun hardware that will set off airport scanners for the rest of my living days.

Doc says he’s “going through the front,” which means I’ll be more or less drawn and quartered by a vascular surgeon, and then the spine guy will work through my bones with wedges, rasps, saws, and drills.

And some poor dead guy will be donating a section of his dead leg to be repurposed into my spine. The good news: I could be up to a half-inch taller after I’m fully recovered.

I’ve hurt my back plenty of times before – and I bet most readers have at least on one occasion “slipped his back,” twisted a foot or ankle, or broken heaven-knows-what in a way that has laid that person flat for at least a day or week or more.

And really quick, we discover what all those “ADA compliant” grab bars, wheel chair access, elevators, and parking stalls are for.

So easy is it for us to casually write off all this “handicapped access” expense as a “waste of public money.” Developers loath giving up the extra parking space or incurring the expense of larger bathroom stalls and elevators.

Handicap-accessible bathroom fixtures are expensive – and custom door handles and ramps drive up the cost of building – costs that the average unhandicapped user bears.

And so easy is it for us to say: “Only the strong survive.” “To the quickest goes the prize.” “To the victor goes the spoils.”

There’s a whole host of terms and sayings that would have us develop hearts calloused to the weaker, the impaired, the temporarily and permanently “handicapped.”

But here’s the news: Sooner or later, just about every last one of us will be “handicapped” to one extent or another. If you’re lucky enough to be born completely defect-free and live without accident, still, in old age, you most likely will succumb to the dreaded walker or wheelchair.

It’s an amazing thing that Americans largely resisted the “intrusion” of handicap-accessible facilities into everyday life for so very long – even though all of us eventually become disabled if we live long enough.

It’s amazing that we accepted discrimination against the handicapped for decades beyond even the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It wasn’t until the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 that all those grab bars, wheelchair accesses, elevators, and parking stalls became the law of the land.

It wasn’t until the ADA of 1990 that employers were legally required to treat and accommodate the handicapped with the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.

Boy, was that another time in America. Republican President George H.W. Bush signed that bill into law. Can you imagine a Republican president today signing bills strengthening the rights of the weak and the vulnerable? Not likely.

Instead, our web privacy and clean air and water get sold out to the highest bidder and slickest lobbyist.

How we miss those days of reason and cooperation. Imagine that. I’m actually nostalgic for George H.W. Bush. …

Back to being handicapped. So I’ve “got mine coming,” and with each closing day I feel increased terror and fear for the upcoming pain. Oh, yeah, I need this surgery. I’m losing nerve response in my legs and this is the only fix. Without surgery, I will permanently be that old guy shuffling with the walker in the prune section.

So, I have high hopes that after all the pain is suffered and the doctor bills paid, I’ll emerge from a pain cocoon like some sort of 60-something butterfly and again fly down the sidewalks in my tennis shoes or on my bike.

But for a couple of weeks I’ll be using that handicapped spot. For a couple of weeks, I’ll be hanging on to those now-very-much-appreciated grab bars. For a couple of weeks, I’ll be experiencing the disabling pain that plagues others, only permanently.

I’m surely grateful to live in a time where such technology gives me a very strong chance to live pain-free again. But the time will come when I run out of options. And the time will come that so will you. We will, either through accident or through age, become slower, less adroit, feeble, reliant on others, immobile, and eventually dead.

Embracing our common vulnerability and temporary or permanent “handicapness” enhances our humanity and love for others. Empathy and willingly helping those less strong make us stronger ourselves. Respecting the handicapped is a solid step toward respecting all people equally.

For a couple of weeks, I’ll walk in handicapped shoes. I’ll never take those annoying ADA rules for granted again.

Thank goodness for a gentler time when Americans indeed cared thoughtfully for our weaker ones.

 

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