Travel, Disability, and the ADA: What’s Changed Since 1990

A train passing byEarlier I walked you through a typical visit to see our son Gus at his group home. To complete the celebration of the 28th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act — and to further explain how much the ADA affects our everyday lives — here’s an account of a train ride back to Chicago after one of those visits with Gus.

When the cab picked us up at the hotel, the driver understood immediately that Whitney was a service dog — no extra charge for her. Whitney has gone through a lot of training to become a Seeing Eye dog, and she always sits quietly at my feet in the back seat during cab rides.

Our driver got us to the Amtrak station just in time to board our train, and we sat up front in the disability seats. That way Whitney had more room to stretch out than she’d had in the cab.

A woman sitting across the aisle in the disability section noticed my dog and leaned over to ask whether we might want her space. “I think it might have more room for her,” she reasoned.

It took the woman a few seconds to realize we had the same kind of spacious accommodations as she did. “OH,” she said, a little embarassed. “I didn’t see — you already have room!”

When the train eased out of the station, the lady across the aisle leaned over one more time. “Can I be so bold as to ask how long you’ve had that dog, and how it’s working for you?”

Twenty minutes of conversation told us she’d lost her sight in one eye. The other was in bad shape, all due to diabetic retinopathy (the same thing that took my sight away decades ago). She was a couple years older than us, and she’d been living with Type 1 diabetes for 50 years. A nurse herself, she’d always been praised by her doctors for being a model diabetic. But that’s not always enough.

Her husband had stayed home for this trip, but the way she described their situation seemed to be a lot like Mike and mine had been 33 years ago. She’d had good doctors and bad doctors and doctors who had the bedside manner of Attila the Hun. She could see some out of one eye, and she was in that awkward phase where she is doing just well enough and badly enough by herself to annoy (or frighten) the people around her.

She wasn’t blind yet, but she wanted to get ready in case total blindness was in her future. She didn’t want to drag down her husband with endless needs, nor did she like losing independence and needing his help. For his part, her husband, a “type A” as she put it, seemed to be struggling not to over protect.

Her experience rang so familiar, and as Mike and I related our experiences — and how similar they were to our new acquaintance — it seemed almost revelatory to the woman across the aisle. “Things are so much better since the ADA was passed,” I pointed out, relating my horror story of losing my job when I lost my sight in 1986. I gave her the name of the memoir I wrote back then, assuring her that “Long Time, No See” is available free of charge from the Library of Congress Talking Book program, both in Braille and as an audiobook. “That’s another thing that’s changed,” I marveled. “So many audiobooks now!” Mike wrote down his email address, too, and told her to give it to her husband.

If it weren’t for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we wouldn’t have met this woman. Before 1990, it was more difficult for people with disabilities to travel. To work. To get out and about. To access public transportation. We’re out there now, though.

It made Mike and I both feel good to be able to reassure this stranger on the train that she and her husband back home are not alone — happy anniversary, ADA!


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