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If you have a disability in the U.S., you're more than twice as likely to be poor as someone without a disability. The gap has been widening since the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed 25 years ago this Sunday. The law was supposed to expand economic opportunity for the 58 million disabled Americans, but it hasn't always worked that way. NPR's Pam Fessler reports on one young man in Tulsa, Okla., and his efforts to become self-sufficient.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Emeka Nnaka is an ambitious, outgoing 27-year-old. He's also paralyzed from the chest down. Six years ago, he played semipro football for the Oklahoma Thunder, went to make a tackle and broke his neck.
EMEKA NNAKA: I remember players saying, Meka, you know, you got to get up, let's go. And I remember telling them, you know, give me a second, you know? And one second turned to two seconds, turned to three seconds and then the trainers came out and...
FESSLER: His life had changed forever. Today he gets around in a motorized wheelchair. His long legs dangle over the footrests as he greets friends at a center where he works out.
E. NNAKA: What's up, brother?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How's it going?
E. NNAKA: It goes well, man, it goes well. You doing all right?
FESSLER: Emeka Nnaka is a big guy - six-foot-five - and a perpetual optimist. He wants to finish undergraduate school this summer, get a master's degree in human relations, become a counselor, maybe someday have a home and a family he can support.
E. NNAKA: You get to meet Savannah (ph).
FESSLER: Who's Savannah?
E. NNAKA: (Laughter). My van.
FESSLER: Savannah is what he calls his new handicapped accessible van. It could be the key to his success. He got the van last December after friends launched an online fundraising campaign with the hashtag #MakeMekaMobile.
E. NNAKA: Could you hand me that white cord?
FESSLER: Nnaka plugs in a smartphone for directions. He's still learning his way around. He used to rely on a special lift service provided by the city, but those rides had to be booked at least a day in advance and often involved long waits.
E. NNAKA: I'd spend about three hours in transportation daily when I was riding the lift. So think about, like, three hours out of your day in which you're not doing anything.
FESSLER: Now he's in the driver's seat, and he's doing something today that's highly unusual for someone with a disability - he's going to a staffing agency to fill out paperwork for a job. Less than 20 percent of disabled adults are employed, one reason so many are poor. Nnaka's been hired part-time by United Way to talk about their work, but when we get to the staffing agency, there's a problem.
E. NNAKA: See that little strip?
E. NNAKA: That's not enough for me to get my ramp out and...
E. NNAKA: Not at all.
FESSLER: The handicap space is a bit too narrow, so he has to park over the line. When Nnaka wheels to the front door there's also no button he can push to open it. This place was built before the ADA, so it's not required. I asked Nnaka what he'd do if I weren't there.
E. NNAKA: If you weren't here, I would...
FESSLER: He wedges the side of one arm under the handle, cracking the door open slightly. He then wiggles his chair back and forth like a crowbar until he's inside. He then gets into a nearby elevator but has no room to turn.
E. NNAKA: This elevator is tiny. Can you push two?
FESSLER: Now, how would you have pushed two?
E. NNAKA: See, now that's a good question.
FESSLER: He say he'd probably have to wait until someone came by and ask for help. It's almost unbearable watching this former athlete struggle through even the smallest task. He has limited use of his hands and has to move the computer mouse with a clenched fist to fill out nine pages of forms at the staffing agency, including answering questions about his abilities.
E. NNAKA: Reading - yup. Crawling - no. Counting - yup. Standing - no (laughter).
FESSLER: Nnaka says one problem for people with disabilities is that many companies don't think they're up to the job. He hopes to prove them wrong.
E. NNAKA: All right. We're out of here. See you guys. Thank ya'll.
FESSLER: Of course, Emeka Nnaka has a lot going for him. He's extremely popular, with a huge network of friends. When we pull up to a gas station, he uses his knuckles to tap out a number on the cell phone.
E. NNAKA: Keegan, what's up? It's Emeka. I am at pump 14 and could use some assistance.
FESSLER: Nnaka comes here because he knows one of the guys working inside. He soon arrives at the car window.
E. NNAKA: What's up, boss man?
KEEGAN: What are you getting today?
E. NNAKA: I am going to fill up on gas and I am going to get - what kind of taquitos you guys got in there?
KEEGAN: Chicken, steak, pepper jack, cheesy pepper jack and habanero.
FESSLER: Nnaka says he's determined to make something of his life because so many people have helped him to get as far as he has. Especially his father, who moved here from Georgia after the accident and has cared for Nnaka ever since - bathing him, dressing him, cooking and cleaning.
E. NNAKA: This is my dad.
FESSLER: Hi, how are you?
PHILIP NNAKA: Fine, how are you?
FESSLER: My name is Pam, hi.
The two share a small two-bedroom apartment subsidized by the government. It's on the ground floor, which is good, although the bathroom door is too narrow for Nnaka's wheelchair, so he can't get in.
E. NNAKA: Dad, can I have a Gatorade?
FESSLER: Like many with disabilities, Nnaka relies on government aid, which he'd prefer not to be on. Oklahoma has helped in with school expenses and retrofitting his van. He also gets Medicare and about $700 a month in Social Security disability benefits. But there's a catch. Nnaka will lose his federal aid if he saves more than $2,000.
E. NNAKA: The system is not set up to succeed.
FESSLER: Nnaka says this asset limit holds back many disabled people who would like to work. It was a huge problem for him when cash donations started pouring in for his van.
E. NNAKA: And I had $4,000 in my closet, so it was like, OK...
FESSLER: In your closet?
E. NNAKA: Yeah, 'cause I mean, I was just taking - couldn't put it anywhere, you know?
FESSLER: Congress has agreed that the savings limit is a problem, and last year it passed legislation that will soon allow some people with disabilities to set up special accounts that are exempt. Emeka Nnaka thinks 25 years after the ADA, many doors have been opened, but not enough.
E. NNAKA: There's so much more that people with disabilities need to be inclusive and included in this society to have just the same opportunity that anybody else has.
FESSLER: He says unfortunately the ADA has led many people to believe that all the barriers are gone. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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