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By Rosemary Musachio, Accessibility Analyst

As you may know by now, October is Disability Awareness Month. Disability organizations have various events to make the public aware of the obstacles persons with disabilities (PWD) face and the accomplishments we have made. News programs show reporters in wheelchairs for a day helpless at the bottom of steps or stuck in narrow doorways. Numerous articles may be written on how far we have come since the days of institutions and how far we have to go until all doors will be open to us.

Although disability awareness has been potent during this month and during July when the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is celebrated, what happens during the other ten months? Are the messages that are permeated during these two months so powerful that they last throughout the year?

To answer the latter, let me recount some restaurant experiences. The first happened in May last year (not a disability awareness month). My girlfriend and I were having cocktails in a restaurant. Because I have difficulty drinking out of a glass, I use a water bottle. As we were enjoying our drinks, the assistant manager walked up to our table and said patrons are not allowed to drink out of bottles. My friend explained why I needed to drink out of a water bottle. The assistant manager asked if we were storing alcoholic drinks in the water bottle and taking it off the premises. We assured him we would not, which seemed to suffice the situation enough that he left. I continued drinking out of my water bottle until the manager came ten minutes later. He reiterated what his associate said in a harsher tone. At this point, I started to cry because I felt so humiliated. We decided to leave without paying. (Wouldn’t you do the same?) Although I intended to file an ADA complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, I never did because I became ill with pneumonia and had to be hospitalized.

Two other restaurant incidents happened in May once again, but in this year. My mom, friends and I finally found a restaurant after searching for one for a while. The so-called accessible entrance was in the back. It was so flimsy it belonged hidden in the back! My friends maneuvered my wheelchair on a very narrowed and cracked walkway. I felt like we were doing a circus performance. To make our entrance more spectacular, they had to lift my chair over a little doorstep. Another incident that involved an unbelievable restaurant entrance had my friends carrying me up a couple of cracked concrete steps that led to a ramp. How ingenious is that? The restaurant succeeded in showing inaccessibility versus accessibility.

Viewing that these restaurant episodes didn’t happen in the Disability Awareness Month or ADA Anniversary Month probably would not have made much difference. If I went to any of these restaurants in October, it probably would not have changed anything. Even if the manager at the first restaurant saw or read something about Disability Awareness, he probably would not have applied better judgment towards the water bottle issue. Even if management of the other two restaurants were exposed to media about Disability Awareness, they probably would not have decided to build wider walkways and ramps.

Disability Awareness, just like awareness about other kinds of diversities, must begin at home and school, not just for a week or month but year around, to make a lasting impact. Professionals and renowned individuals with disabilities should be invited to speak or perform for students of all ages throughout the year. Teachers could create role play activities so a non-disabled student could feel the challenges faced by someone who cannot walk, talk, hear or see. Parents should just stop their children from staring at individuals with disabilities, but explain why they are disabled and how they are not different from anyone else.

Disability Awareness should continue in the workplace and out in the community on a consistent basis. Although employers should not set quotas, their HR departments could reach out to PWDs to let them know they are viable resources who would be accommodated if they would be hired. If restaurants, department stores and other service-related industries employ more PWDs, the businesses would consider customers and patrons with disabilities much more. Disability awareness, therefore, would be a daily occurence, not once or twice a year.