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Three decades after ADA became law, progress remains slow in numerous cities

Steven Foelsch crosses the street
Posted at 9:18 AM, Feb 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-03 14:30:51-05

ST. LOUIS — It was a lesson he learned fast.

When he was 20, Steven Foelsch wrecked his motorcycle and lost the use of his arms and legs. He soon found it was better to not fight but adapt.

“Sometimes, I put 15 miles a day on my wheelchair," Foelsch said.

Adjustments are everywhere— from the pointer he uses to type to the confidence with which he glides around downtown St. Louis. But then come adjustments that he has simply gotten used to, such as crossing a St. Louis street outside of the crosswalk to avoid a crack.

"I just go out and do things that aren’t very safe," he said, "such as in riding in the road or crossing the street where there are no crosswalks.”

He has internalized it all. Like many others with disabilities in any number of cities and towns, he has no choice.

“I can’t tell you how many times I hear people say, ‘Gee, I thought the ADA took care of all that,'" Foelsch said. "And, you know, I’m like, ‘Nah.’”

The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, was signed into law in 1990. It made discrimination against those with disabilities illegal. Progress has most definitely come. But three decades later, enforcement often isn’t quick.

In 2021, wheelchair users in Baltimore filed a lawsuit against the city, saying they couldn’t travel freely due to poorly maintained curb ramps and sidewalks. Cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, and New York have all been taken to court.

“A lot of people spent a lot of money just doing the bare minimum," Foelsch said, "and it still doesn’t work. It’s like, ‘Did you ask somebody that uses a wheelchair? Did you ask somebody in the blind community or the deaf community?’”

“People don’t understand disability and don’t really think about it," said David Newburger, who runs St. Louis’ Office on the Disabled.

When it comes to progress, his city is somewhere in the middle.

“Our tax revenue isn’t enough to pay for all of the costs to fix these things," Newburger said. “Somebody who is quadriplegic can often take four hours to get up in the morning. Well, you know, if they're trying to do an eight-hour job and be there by 8:00, they have to be up at 4:00. You know, that's just not much of a life.”

St. Louis has made strides with its sidewalks and curb cuts. It made its most iconic sight, the Arch, ADA-accessible. But it’s an older city with tightening tax revenue. And even Newburger approaches his job looking uphill.

“Do I think we’ll get the whole world fixed? Nope," he said. "Probably not. So, you shut your eyes and you do the best you can.”

In some sense, that’s Foelsch’s view, too. He eludes and avoids obstacles. He puts 15 miles on his wheelchair, and he aims to adapt rather than get frustrated with the fight.

“I don’t have a psychology degree," Foelsch said, "but it just seems like in the back of everybody’s mind, disability is basically a symbol of human frailty. People think I’m confined to a wheelchair. No, dude – I’m liberated by this wheelchair!"