Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) celebrates 25 years

Shelley Hawkins, longtime disability awareness trainer at Solid Ground Transportation, tells me she’s going to teach me something. She asks me to hold my arm out. In order to assist her from her chair to her walker, I loosely extend my arm. She straightens my arm, tells me to widen my stance. She hoists herself up, using my weight rather than my strength. As both a trainer and user of the ACCESS van service, Shelley has a comprehensive understanding of what people living with disabilities require. She instructs her drivers to never lift passengers. They can lift themselves with a little leverage.


Shelley Hawkins is a Solid Ground Transportation trainer.

For the past 25 years, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has provided that leverage for disabled people to pursue autonomous lives. The act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodations, and governmental activities. Shelley reminds me that the ADA equal access provisions mean nothing if they are not implemented effectively. She’s devoted the last 15 years to train ACCESS drivers on disability awareness, ADA compliance, and passenger assistance.

Tomorrow, July 22, Disability Rights Washington will hold a 25th anniversary rally at Westlake Park to celebrate the meaningful freedom the legislation has afforded the disabled population. Shelley recalls how “30 years ago, no one was even talking about this. People with disabilities stayed home.” Before ADA, social agencies provided accommodating transportation services only to people living below a certain income threshold. The ADA extended eligibility for those free services to anyone who could no longer take a fixed route due to physical or cognitive impairments.

Shelley trains ACCESS drivers – a service that provides curb-to-curb transportation – because she realizes that transportation is the crucial element of autonomous living. Without services such as ACCESS provided by the ADA, people with disabilities face daily frustrations – unable to get to the grocery store, or perform the essential errands that others take for granted. Even where ADA ideals fall short in practice, Shelley appreciates when “[she] knows they tried to fix it. That matters.” We should celebrate the signing of the ADA because it represents a step in the right direction, the result of people advocating for themselves.

Additionally, I hope the 25th anniversary of ADA opens a conversation about how disability awareness can be improved. In Shelley’s eyes, the ultimate goal is to eliminate obstacles that demand outside assistance. She shared an anecdote from her trip to Germany: “You can’t put an elevator in a castle, but the Germans will pick you up and carry you to the top of the castle if that’s what you want to do.” Although the final outcome appears the same, anyone would prefer the independence of the elevator.

People with disabilities encounter a host of accessibility limitations that fall through the cracks of the ADA. Oftentimes sidewalks will have curb cuts on one side that don’t match the curb cut on the other side. A flimsy lift rather than a durable elevator; small doors on the accessible side of the building; buttons on the wrong side of the door. These accommodations are compliant with ADA regulations, but in an attempt to incur only minimum costs, companies and public utilities fall short of a minimum humanity. They force people to seek assistance where they could otherwise be independent. Shelley expressed some dismay that “you try to go in and change it; they misinterpret what the disabled populations [are] asking for, and change it in a way they didn’t expect. That’s not helping.” Helping is listening.

Much to the credit of ADA legislation, we’ve made great progress in disability awareness the past few decades. People living with disabilities know they can transport to their jobs affordably. They know they can access the restrooms at their jobs. They can get drinks with friends after work. That’s worth celebrating.

Moving forward, a level of personal thoughtfulness should transcend the bare minimum regulations of the ADA in both accessibility design and disability services. More so, programs should be aware that the less external assistance required the better. Shelley tells her drivers that passengers don’t want them breaking their backs trying to assist them. Straighten your arm, widen your stance – provide leverage.

Tenant Tip: Fair housing & service animals

Solid Ground’s Tenant Counselors receive frequent questions about tenants’ rights around having service or assistive animals in housing in Washington state. Common questions include:

  • What information can my landlord ask about my need for a service animal?
  • How do I go about requesting permission from my landlord to have a service animal?

4-H-vols-dogs-at-BFP-015To gain a better understanding, it is helpful to know the Fair Housing definitions of “Disability,” “Reasonable Accommodation” and “Service Animal.”

  • Disability: The Washington State Law Against Discrimination defines disability as a sensory, mental, or physical condition that significantly limits a person’s ability to perform major daily functions (e.g., seeing, hearing, speaking, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, learning, caring for oneself, and working).
  • Reasonable Accommodation: This is a change in rules, policies, practices or services that enable a person with a disability to have equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling unit or common space. (E.g., A building with a “no pets” policy might make a reasonable accommodation for a blind tenant in allowing the tenant to keep a guide dog.)
  • Service Animals: These are animals that work, provide assistance, or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provide emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability. Service animals are not pets.

A service animal must be allowed even in a no-pets building, and a landlord cannot charge a pet fee or collect a pet deposit for a service animal. The tenant is responsible for their service animal and its behavior in the building. If the service animal causes damages, the tenant may be charged for the repairs. If the animal is not house broken or is out of control and the tenant does not take effective action to control it, the landlord may ask the individual to obtain corrective training for the service animal or even to remove the service animal from their home.

Also, a landlord may not ask the nature of the disability. If the disability is clearly obvious (such as a person who is blind, using a guide dog), the landlord may not ask questions about the disability or the need for the animal. The landlord cannot require documentation for the animal, such as a certificate or license. If the disability is not obvious, they may ask for a letter from the tenant’s service provider (a medical professional or other professional who knows about your disability and accommodation needs, such as a peer support group or non-medical service provider) documenting that the tenant has a disability and that there is a disability-related need for the animal.

Our sample letter to request Reasonable Accommodations has language that can help you request a service animal.

More than one agency oversees and enforces the laws on this topic, depending on where the person resides, and the following four agencies oversee service animal investigations:

  • Seattle: Seattle Office for Civil Rights
  • Tacoma: Tacoma Human Rights
  • Unincorporated King County: King County Office of Civil Rights & Open Government
  • Everywhere else in Washington state: U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD)

Want to find out more about Service Animals? Check out the following resources:

This post was contributed by Tenant Counselor Jeanne Winner. The tenant information contained in this article or linked to the Solid Ground Tenant Services website is for informational purposes only. Solid Ground makes no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information contained in or linked to its website. Solid Ground cannot act as your attorney. Solid Ground makes no representations, expressed or implied, that the information contained in or linked to its website can or will be used or interpreted in any particular way by any governmental agency or court. As legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and laws are constantly changing, nothing provided here should be used as a substitute for the advice of competent counsel. Solid Ground Tenant Counselors offer these tenant tips as generalized information for renters. People with specific questions should call our Tenant Services hotline at 206.694.6767, Mondays, Wednesdays & Thursdays between 10:30am and 4:30pm.

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