Bittersweet Birthday: Twenty Years of the ADA in Albuquerque

It is a bittersweet birthday, this 20 year anniversary celebration for the Americans with Disabilities Act. I’ve yet to learn how Burqueños are marking this day, but perhaps folks will fill me in. To be sure, the celebration is less important than the achievements over the past 20 years. Legislation that provides accessibility to over 50 million Americans is a profound accomplishment.

In local terms, Albuquerque should be proud of what it has achieved.

Here are some changes I have noted over the years.

Most street corners in my neighborhood now have curb cuts, used by people with strollers as well wheelchair users.

ATMs at my bank now have Braille buttons for people who are blind or have low vision, and the Sunport now has TTYs for the deaf (though almost no one uses TTYs these days - video relay services have taken over).

Gyms and bars and hospital waiting rooms now have televisions with closed captions – many places keep these on constantly because noisy environments make it difficult for anyone to hear the broadcasts.

Albuquerque hosts an annual conference about disability, the Southwest Conference on Disability, every autumn in downtown. It is a place where providers, advocates, educators, caretakers, researchers, and policy makers get together to share information and make change.

That’s the sweet.
Bitterness follows. (I wish it were otherwise).

When I first moved to this city from a part of the country that was renowned for its independent living movement, I was a bit frustrated at the lack of access here.

Let me rephrase that. I was extremely frustrated. The ADA had been around for a few years, but the typical response I got when requesting accessibility required by law - whether for myself or the people I worked with - was stonewalling silence or a simple brush off.

I learned to be a thorn in peoples' sides in this city. And I chose not to be just any thorn, but one that residents of this city know well – I became as tenacious as a goathead.

This didn’t come easy to me. I much prefer working through dialogue, brainstorming, and compromise than through threats.

I’ve dealt with so many skirmishes in my post-ADA life in Albuquerque that I can’t remember them all, but a few stand out.

During my first semester as a graduate student, I was assigned an unqualified sign language interpreter. That is, a brand new interpreter with no certification, no college degree, and no paid experience – assigned to interpret a PhD level course with highly technical vocabulary. I decided that I wanted a person who had the skills to do this job. (It ain't access if the interpreter is incompetent.)

In asking for “reasonable accommodation” in the form of a qualified interpreter, I butted heads with an administrator at UNM. The administrator dismissed my request by accusing me of wanting to give me a job to a friend - the friend who had volunteered her free time to interpret my meeting with him. Despite my protestations to the contrary and offer that the university could choose the interpreter so long as the interpreter was certified and had a college education (meeting the accepted minimum national standards for such an assignment), he refused to consider my request.

The administrator added insult to injury by noting that we both had “disabilities”, telling me that his inability to use e-mail was like my inability to hear. He didn’t appreciate it much when I pointed out his was a matter of a lack of training and that mine was a matter that no amount of training (or amplification, for that matter) could address.

And he really didn’t like it when I thanked him for his time and left his office with the words that I would just have to file a complaint with the Dept of Justice. He caught up with me just before I left the building and agreed to provide qualified interpreters. From that point on, UNM did a great job.

I wish I could say that this was atypical. But my first few years in Albuquerque were filled with requests for accessibility, followed by denial of services - services mandated by law - resulting in frequent communication with the local Protection and Advocacy office, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the FCC.

I simply wanted to be a mother and a graduate student, but I was thrust into the role of advocate. If I wanted access in those early years, I had to fight for it.

I dealt with this when I took my children to the circus at Tingley Coliseum (they had no assistive listening devices then) and at school functions.

I cried tears of frustration when I tried to attend a national conference on religion and ethics here in Albuquerque and received a letter from the conference organizers telling me that because of my disability they had refunded my money and that I was not welcome to attend. Oh, the irony!

There was one exception to this pattern.

Soon after we moved to Barelas, my family joined a play group with other deaf and hard of hearing mothers. We decided that we wanted to attend a children’s play at the South Broadway Cultural Center.

So one day after taking the kids to “our” library, I purchased tickets to the event and requested interpreters for the group. This time the response was kinder – the staff at the center did not know what to do, but instead of an outright “no”, they gave me the email address of the City’s ADA coordinator, Richard Benison.

For years I was on first name terms with this ADA coordinator of the city of Albuquerque, who always responded to my emails promptly, right from the start. We had many conversations about the meaning of reasonable accommodations, and also about how to deal with a limited budget and a burgeoning unfunded mandate. I like to think that we worked together well on this issue.

A little sweet mixed in with the bitter goes a long way.

I did not fare as well with Bernalillo County’s ADA person.

If you are a geeky GOV TV person, you will note that while the Albuquerque City Council meetings are shown with captions both in chambers and on television every time they air. County Commission meetings are not captioned – at least not when I watch them on television.

Funny thing, the same law applies to both.

The ADA not only applies to accessibility provided by state and local governments, it also requires private entities to provide accessibility. The ADA, plus the Telecommunications Act of 1996, established accessibility standards for local and network television stations by implementing a graduated schedule requiring access via closed captioning.

A few years after we had settled into Barelas, a bosque fire flared up. This fire was close enough that APD closed down my street, and when I stood on my front porch and looked south, I could see flames shooting up into the sky. All local television stations had suspended their regular programming and were showing live shots of the fire.

The television station charged with handling emergency response broadcasts for Albuquerque did not use closed captioning to inform deaf and hard of hearing Albuquerque residents about the fire – I understood what they were reporting only because I could ask my children to tell me what they were saying on television. Fortunately, they were old enough to talk at that time.

I contacted the station (through NM Relay services, guaranteed by Title IV of the ADA) and asked that they provide captions for deaf and hard of hearing people. Station management told me at the time that they were not required to provide access under the ADA or the Telecommunications Act.

I. Was. Furious.

Remember that goathead description?
I refused to take their say-so for an answer.

I dug in and filed a claim against the television station. After several months I received a letter from their lawyers – a big firm located in Washington DC, not here Albuquerque. The lawyers downplayed the seriousness of the situation and mentioned that since no harm was done, the lack of captioning was not a problem.

Clearly, lawyers in verdant Washington DC don’t get it when it comes to bosque fires in the Duke City.

I had the last laugh, though. Not that I wanted a laugh out of this; I just wanted access to emergency information the next time a fire came so close to my home that I could see flames.

I sent copies of this letter exchange to friends in Washington who advocated for accessibility. Several similar incidents had happened around the country, including a big fire in San Diego. My story was just one of many told in meetings on and around Capitol Hill.

Shortly afterward, the FCC fined some stations. The stations sued, of course. But the courts ruled that all emergency information had to be captioned on local television stations, and made an example of the biggest violators by upholding FCC fines on stations that had not done this.

Since then, Albuquerque’s news stations have done a pretty good job of making emergency broadcast information available. I know, because I watched them caption their emergency broadcasts about local fires this summer.


Twenty years ago, I probably would have predicted our public entities would be pretty good at providing legally mandated access, and that private entities would still be working on this. I’m enough of a realist and a student of history to know that change is slow and that change plus an unfunded mandate can be tough going, despite tax breaks for accessibility equipment and services.

I also know from experience that constantly dealing with an adversarial model when requesting accessibility can make one weary.

Back to that goathead metaphor.

You see, I haven’t baked an ADA birthday cake today. Instead, I’m celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the ADA by doing a little advocacy.

You may have noticed that we’ve got a gubernatorial race going on in this state.

You may not have noticed that neither campaign is running television advertisements with captioning. At least not that I have seen - I may have missed some. And I’d be willing to wager wages that these ads also do not have audio description for blind people. Someone with better ears and the proper equipment will have to check on this for me, of course.

I’ve been laid up with a broken ankle this summer and have watched more televised local news in the past few months than I have in the past decade. So far, I’ve seen one Susana Martinez commercial with open captions (written English for spoken Spanish) and have yet to view a single Denish or Martinez television ad with closed captions.

Sure, campaigns can design ads without captions by using text in creative ways – I’ve seen ads that do this well.

But when upwards of ten percent of the state’s population benefits from captioning (including one of the largest groups, returning veterans) and when the ten year old down the street can upload captions to her 5 minute Youtube clip using freeware, what exactly is stopping our gubernatorial candidates from uploading their transcripts for captioning a 30 second political ad?

It can't be the cost.

And it can't be the time - a volunteer could do this in less than half an hour.

I’ve written to both campaigns and received not a single word in response.
(I guess it's time to make like a goathead again).

Why do I do this?

Because I’d just like to have the experience of being as annoyed by over the top political ads as you are.

Because I’d like to have the experience of serving on jury duty instead of being dismissed because of the court’s inability to set up accessibility, despite my working with the courts for 6 months to ensure said accessibility.

Because I’d like to be able to donate money to political candidates who understand that equal access should be a lived standard, not an afterthought. I’ve worked on plenty of local campaigns where I have made it a point to drive this message home.

Because I’d like to see New Mexico politicians providing accessible webcasts (a closed captioned Udall Update would be a nice start) without having to remind anyone to do this.

Because I'd like to feel included, instead of excluded. (This morning a friend sent me a CNN clip shown yesterday about the upcoming anniversary of the ADA. It was not captioned).

In short, I’d like to experience access to these perks of citizenship without fighting for them. It has been a long twenty years, after all.

Maybe in another twenty?
A girl can always hope.

In the meantime, consider celebrating the ADA by joining me in sending emails to both of our gubernatorial candidates requesting captioned television and internet campaign ads. Contact Diane Denish here and Susana Martinez here.

You just might make a difference.

Views: 67

Comment by Krista on July 27, 2010 at 10:57am
I always appreciate your perspectives and will keep them with me. Thanks for the suggestions.
Comment by Barelas Babe on July 27, 2010 at 5:43pm
@Ben - can you point me to a source for this? I'd love to learn more.
Comment by Barelas Babe on July 27, 2010 at 7:50pm
Thanks Ben. Will check it out!
Comment by Krista on July 28, 2010 at 9:49pm
Taken from a Facebook status, but it's a start!!

"Local people set your DVRs! "UNM faculty member Leslie A. Donovan will appear as a panelist on KNME (Channel 5) hour-long "New Mexico in Focus" televison program to air on Friday, July 30, night at 7:00 pm. An Associate Professor in the University Honors Program at UNM, Donovan will be participating in a conversation marking the 20-year-anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act."
Comment by Barelas Babe on July 28, 2010 at 10:28pm
I'm looking forward to this! Was it a UNM PR posting?
Comment by Krista on July 28, 2010 at 10:40pm Donovan's facebook. like a UNM PR posting, yeah?
Comment by Michelle Meaders on July 29, 2010 at 12:14am
Usually the description for each week's NM in Focus comes out on UNM Today on the Thursday before it airs.

After it airs, it's available on NM in Focus' blog.


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