CINCINNATI — Mark Kayes has worked at the LaRosa’s Pizzeria call center for the past 15 years.
He takes customers’ orders and relays them to restaurants, entering credit card numbers with practiced efficiency and ensuring each order is labeled correctly as carry-out or delivery.
It would be unremarkable except for this: Kayes was born without arms. He does his job using a headset, a higher-than-standard chair, and a low desk so he can use his feet to operate his computer mouse and keyboard.
“I do the same job like everybody does,” Kayes told WCPO. “I’ve been here every day, on time. And I can do what everybody can do.”
Thanks to the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, people with disabilities across Greater Cincinnati and throughout the U.S. are doing what everybody can do. The ADA has given millions of men, women and children access to employment, housing and education that was once unimaginable.
“What I think is best about what the Americans with Disabilities Act does is it has opened up the door so that people who, like me, cannot walk and can’t use a hand can still work,” said Robert Lee Harris, a community activist and artist and a former member of the Hamilton County Developmental Disabilities Services board. “The Americans with Disabilities Act said that you might not like me, but you cannot deny me a job because you don’t like the idea of a person with a disability working with you, beside you or maybe even being your boss.”
To mark the 30th anniversary of the civil rights law’s signing on July 26, 1990, WCPO 9 News interviewed a variety of Greater Cincinnati residents about what the ADA has meant for them.
Those interviews made clear that people with disabilities continue to face many challenges. But everyone who spoke with WCPO for this report said the ADA has opened doors that once were closed for people like them.
Everyone, that is, except Kayes.
Now 41, Kayes was a kid when the ADA became law, and he said he can’t even imagine what his life would be like without the law and the job that he loves.
“I can type 35 words per minute,” he said. “I can do anything.”
The gray of the ADA
The purpose of the ADA is to ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. The law is divided into five sections, or titles, that correspond to different areas of public life:
Title I relates to employment and is designed to help people with disabilities access the same jobs and benefits as people without disabilities.
Title II relates to state and local government. It prohibits discrimination against qualified people with disabilities in programs, activities and services of state and local governments and their agencies.
Title III focuses on public accommodations. It prohibits places such as hotels, restaurants, retailers and doctors’ offices from discriminating against people with disabilities.
Title IV relates to telecommunications and requires telephone and Internet companies to provide nationwide services that allow people with hearing and speech disabilities to communicate over the phone. It also requires closed captioning for public service announcements that are federally funded.
Title V encompasses a variety of provisions that relate to the ADA, including how the legislation relates to other laws and its impact on insurance providers and benefits.
The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, or ADAAA, became effective on Jan. 1, 2009, and made some important changes to how the law defines “disability.”
Even with all that legal language, though, the law has not eliminated all the obstacles facing people with disabilities, said Elizabeth Whelpdale. She’s the community services for the deaf program manager at the Hearing Speech + Deaf Center and chair of the Cincinnati Accessibility Board of Advisors.
“The ADA, it’s gray. It’s not black and white,” Whelpdale said. “I understand that the ADA was established, and it is the law. But to say that people follow it, understand it and do it, is not true.”
Employers often aren’t prepared to accommodate people with disabilities as they are legally required to because they don’t have money set aside in the event a need arises, she said.
Commonplace interactions with police and something as simple as riding the bus can be sources of frustration and confusion, she said.
“People that are deaf and blind that ride the bus, there should be some sort of signal for the next stop,” said Whelpdale, who conducted her interview with WCPO using sign language interpretation services by Frances Robinson. “There is something verbal on the bus for somebody who is blind, but if someone is blind and deaf, how do they know when to get off?”
Going to the bank or the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles was difficult before COVID-19, and it’s even more difficult now that everyone is wearing masks that cover their mouths, said Donna Noe, a services and supports administrator team lead at Hamilton County Developmental Disabilities Services.
Noe has been hearing impaired since birth. She speaks and wears a hearing aid but also reads lips to understand people’s speech.
“I always have to say, ‘Hey, slow down. I am deaf,’” she said. “And some of them are able to adjust, and some are not. And I wish people would be a bit more mindful of that.”
The need to say ‘this is what I need’
Without the ADA, though, Noe said her life would be far emptier.
“To be honest, I’d probably be unemployed,” she said. “The ADA helps to level the playing field for people with disabilities. It allows us to get the resources we need so that we can perform at the same level as people who don’t have a disability.”
She understands first-hand how important that is.
After she graduated from college, Noe, who is 42, estimates she went on at least 30 interviews before she landed her first job. The position required a lot of phone work, and Noe had trouble hearing the phone numbers and addresses that callers would leave in voice mail messages for her.
“I had asked for help,” she said. “There were a lot of people who gave me a lot of flack for that. And I, quite frankly, did not succeed at that job.”
The experience taught Noe a valuable lesson in the importance of knowing her rights and advocating for herself. Now she has technology to help her with phone calls and remote meetings, and she’s comfortable telling her boss when she needs something to do her job.
“It’s very hard to feel like you need to do that because you’re afraid of standing out and looking like a troublemaker, especially if you’re trying to make a good impression on your employer,” Noe said. “But, the thing is, asking for what you need so that way you can perform the same job is not being a troublemaker or anything like that. It’s just simply saying, ‘Hey, this is what I need to level the playing field.’”
Harris knows exactly what life would be like without the ADA.
At nearly 74, he has lived much longer than the law has been around – and far longer than his first doctors expected.
Harris contracted meningitis when he was eight months old, he said, and his doctor said he would be dead in three days.
He beat those odds long ago. But before the ADA, Harris said he couldn’t do much more than that.
“When I was a young man, I almost never left home,” he said. “I was trapped in my house, in my apartment. And I could not get out unless somebody carried my wheelchair down the stairs for me. Then after I got back in my chair, after I got literally crawling down the stairs, bouncing down the stairs, transferring from the last step into my wheelchair and then having them literally help me out of the apartment building, and I never saw anybody except maybe a convent school, which is the school that I went to in those days.”
Now, though, Harris gets out frequently in his wheelchair.
“And I’m constantly seeing people in wheelchairs, people who are walking without hands, people who are deaf and they’re talking to each other,” he said. “It’s just a remarkable, beautiful thing for me to see that out there are just this group of people with all types of disabilities, people who were not even thought of or even allowed to be outside who are now outside and working. And I think that’s a really great thing.”
The changes the ADA inspired and required help people without disabilities every day, too, said Alice Pavey, the superintendent and CEO of Hamilton County Developmental Disabilities Services.
“When you go into buildings, now you can hit the button, and the door will open automatically,” Pavey said as an example. “I see mothers with babies in strollers using those, and those are all as a result of the ADA.”
Then, of course, there are the curb cuts that make it easier for everyone to navigate streets and sidewalks.
The floor, not the ceiling
The city of Cincinnati generally does a good job keeping city sidewalks clear of construction equipment, trash cans and other impediments that get in the way, said Jill Gibboney. She was born without part of her leg and serves as vice chair of the Cincinnati Accessibility Board of Advisors, or CABA.
But people still leave scooters in the middle of the sidewalk, and even some of the newer outdoor dining arrangements make it difficult for people with mobility challenges to get around, she said.
“The other area of struggle for me personally is parking,” Gibboney said. “Sometimes people use the blue-marked spaces or meters to shovel snow into or to park a Dumpster.”
As members of CABA, Gibboney and Whelpdale work to make city officials aware of continuing obstacles for people with disabilities and strategies the city could use to become more welcoming and accessible for everyone – whether that means physical changes to city facilities or ensuring that notes from city meetings are available in an accessible way.
“It’s a group of people that all have very, very different needs,” Gibboney said. “But all really care deeply about implementing some changes to make Cincinnati the best it can be and a city that everyone can enjoy.”
For city officials, having more people tuned in to those needs is a big help, said Chandra Yungbluth, assistant to the city manager for the city of Cincinnati.
“Sometimes we don’t know something’s broken until somebody points it out to us,” she said. “What we want to strive to do at the city is make our city accessible and better for the quality of life for any individuals with a disability. And sometimes the ADA is just the bare minimum and doesn’t meet that standard.”
That’s something that members of CABA talk a lot about, Gibboney said.
“The ADA is the floor, not the ceiling,” she said. “If you can meet that, that’s great. But that’s really just like the bottom of things and then there’s so much further to go.”
There is much work to be done, no doubt.
Still, on this 30th anniversary of the landmark legislation, those who remember what it was like for people with disabilities to try to work and function before the ADA can’t help but think about how much has been accomplished.
Pavey is among them.
Years ago, before the ADA, she remembers working directly with a client in a wheelchair who was applying for a job.
“We went to a pizza place. The meeting went very well, and they hired her. And before we left, she said, ‘I’d like to stop in the restroom,’” Pavey said. “We went to the restroom and, lo and behold, she couldn’t get through the doorway. The doorway was not wide enough for her.”
That narrow door, she said, destroyed her client's job opportunity.
“The ADA has actually opened up so much for people with disabilities,” Pavey said.
As far as Harris is concerned, access to employment tops the list.
“We can all contribute,” he said. “We all need to feel like we are human beings and that we have an opportunity to contribute.”
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.