- Associated Press - Sunday, June 14, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Ash Brittenham was nearly halfway across Main Street in his motorized wheelchair when a large delivery truck that had stopped in front of the hardware store backed up and blocked Brittenham’s only path to the sloped curb cut up to the opposite sidewalk. He froze momentarily until the driver of a Green Mountain Transit Authority bus began honking.

It was just one of the inconveniences and indignities that meet people with disabilities trying to navigate their way around even Vermont’s progressive little capital city as the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act approaches.

Many local, state and national groups and government agencies will be celebrating July 26, which will mark a quarter-century since President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA in 1990.

The world has indeed changed for those with disabilities, said Oce Harrison, a Boston-based project director with the ADA National Network. The Network is a government-funded group of 10 regional centers that provide training and other resources related to the ADA.

“You are as likely to see a person with disabilities on the ski slopes as you are in the workplace,” Harrison said. “For decades, Fenway Park was off-limits to people with disabilities; now it’s very, very accessible,” she added.

But while much has changed since passage of the ADA, Harrison, Brittenham and Brittenham’s mother Kim Brittenham, civil rights manager with the Vermont Center for Independent Living, said there’s still much more to do.

Ash Brittenham has Duchenne muscular dystrophy. “Please don’t say I suffer from it - that sounds too negative,” he said. The main source of suffering for the 17-year-old, freshly minted graduate of Montpelier High School is boredom, he said.

Duchenne is one of nine types of muscular dystrophy. A genetic disorder, it is characterized by progressive muscle degeneration and weakness. Brittenham was diagnosed at 5, was using a wheelchair by 10, and has lost the use of his hands. Over time, the disease affects the heart and respiratory muscles. Historically, most males with it died by their early 20s. Advances in treatment are making cases of patients living into their 30s more common.

On a tour of downtown Montpelier, the nation’s smallest state capital with about 8,000 people, Brittenham found several instances when he had to go around the back of a building to find an accessible entrance to a business. He said using the rear entrances gave him an understanding of what African-Americans went through before the civil rights era.

“It really does seem similar,” he said.

The tour found retail stores often had aisles too narrow to allow a wheelchair to turn around. Restaurants might have accessible entrances, but too often have tables with support structures seemingly designed to give someone in a wheelchair sore knees.

As tough as Montpelier is to navigate in June, it’s much harder in winter when sidewalks are blocked by snowbanks and coated with ice and snow, said Brittenham and Alaina Clements, a 28-year-old Montpelier resident with a brain disorder that has given her stroke-like weakness on one side of her body.

Those sorts of frustrations are common, said Jim deJong of the Great Plains ADA Center in Columbia, Missouri. He lived for a time in Boston, deJong said, and often found that snowplows clearing parking lots often used the parking places marked with the familiar wheelchair symbol as the place to pile the snow.

ADA rules require hotels to ensure that one out of every 25 rooms meet accessibility standards, deJong said. But the standards don’t mention beds, and some hotels use beds so high that someone in a wheelchair “just about has to pole-vault into them,” deJong said. He’s working with national hotel chains to go with beds 19 to 22 inches high.

Harrison said the biggest challenge ahead for ADA compliance is recognizing the growing numbers of people who have disabilities that are not immediately visible to others, such as autism and other brain disorders in young people or arthritis and low back trouble in their elders. “These are disabilities you cannot see,” she said.

As for Brittenham’s trip across Main Street, the truck driver, who declined to give his name, said moments later, “I’m just trying to do my job.” Then two employees from a hardware store appeared and asked him to move the rig a few feet forward, off the crosswalk. He did.


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