DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We're marking an important birthday this weekend. The Americans with Disabilities Act turns 25 on Sunday. It's seen as a landmark piece of civil rights legislation prohibiting discrimination based on disability. And while many Americans know this law for helping people who use wheelchairs or who are blind or deaf, NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports that the impact has actually been much broader.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: At the Dyckman Street subway station at the northern tip of Manhattan, there's a new elevator. It was added in 2013 so that wheelchair users can get to the train.
JIM WEISMAN: There's the elevator there on the downtown side.
SHAPIRO: That's Jim Weisman of United Spinal Association. He sued the city of New York to get this elevator installed, along with Sid Wolinsky of Disability Rights Advocates.
SID WOLINSKY: This elevator is a gift from the disability community and the ADA to the nondisabled people of New York.
DUSTIN JONES: I have not seen a person with a disability yet ride that elevator. It's all been walking people.
SHAPIRO: And that's Dustin Jones, who's also joined us. He's watching who gets on and off the elevator. They're not people in wheelchairs, like him.
JONES: Right now, you have a mother and her baby. She has a stroller and another small child with her on foot. And they're actually about to get on the elevator right now. She has some bags with her. And once again, this is one of those stations where it would be really tricky to navigate a small child, a small baby with a stroller and bags if you had to solely use the steps.
SHAPIRO: We watch people with rolling suitcases, and many others skip the steep steps and take the elevator. This train station is a place where you can see how a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act helped people with disabilities and lots of other people, too. The ADA, signed into law on July 26, 1990, banned discrimination based on disability. And that included making public transportation accessible, like adding an elevator to major subway stations or when there's a substantial renovation at a station. So when this station was renovated, the lawyer sued and got the elevator. Sometimes it is expensive to provide access. In this case, about $7 million of work - a little more than 21 percent of the cost of the overall renovation - to do the tricky work of installing the elevator at this old station on a rocky cliff.
WEISMAN: See, the elevator use is constant. There must be a reason.
SHAPIRO: Attorney Jim Weisman says the cost is justified, too, by the many people, not just people in wheelchairs, who use it.
WEISMAN: Elderly people, people with vertigo and balance problems and knee problems and coordination. People choose to use the elevator.
SHAPIRO: In New York, only 21 percent of subway stations are accessible. An NPR analysis shows that's the lowest in the country. Old transit systems built before the ADA are the least accessible. In other systems, newer stations, including those built after the ADA, are the most accessible. You can see the NPR analysis of 17 subway and other rail systems at npr.org. Here's another story about a New York elevator and a lawsuit for people with disabilities that ended up helping others.
MELBA TORRES: When Hurricane Sandy hit, I was here in my apartment. I live on an eighth floor, and I was not able to be evacuated.
SHAPIRO: That's Melba Torres.
TORRES: I was here for six days.
SHAPIRO: When the storm in 2012 knocked out power to her building, the elevator shut down. She has cerebral palsy. Her power wheelchair weighs a few hundred pounds. She was stuck, like thousands of people in high-rises around the city.
TORRES: Oh, boy, it's the fear of not knowing what could happen. It was totally dark. I don't like darkness. You know, I was looking out the window, and I was so scared. I had never seen anything like that. And I had never seen water come out of the East River. It was like being in a movie, and you were like, whoa.
SHAPIRO: For a person with a disability, losing electricity isn't just an inconvenience. It can be a matter of life and death.
TORRES: Everything that I use to live on - my chair, my device to get in and out of bed. My bed is electric.
SHAPIRO: All those machines she depends upon needed power. Attorney Sid Wolinsky sued the city on behalf of people like Torres. In 2013, one year after Hurricane Sandy, a federal judge ruled in their favor.
WOLINSKY: One of the issues we raised is the absence of a high-rise evacuation plan for people with disabilities. Well, you know what? New York had no effective high-rise evacuation plan for anybody. You don't have to be disabled to have a problem walking down from a 30-story skyscraper.
SHAPIRO: And the ADA helps people who don't see themselves as being disabled or who have minor disabilities, like Dan Carione.
DAN CARIONE: If you love being a cop, being a cop in New York City is probably the best place - I won't say probably - is the best place in the world to do it.
SHAPIRO: Carione walks a street in lower Manhattan he used to patrol.
CARIONE: And to be out here, in that uniform, walking among the people of the city of New York, it's a privilege.
SHAPIRO: But in a shootout, Carione lost part of his hearing. The police department paid for his hearing aid but then forced Carione, a deputy inspector, to retire, saying you can't be a cop with partial hearing.
CARIONE: For me to embrace the term disabled was very difficult. I come from a whole warrior ethos. I take pride in keeping myself physically strong. And I didn't want to use that word. It was very difficult for me to use that word.
SHAPIRO: But Carione sued, using the ADA. He argued that with his hearing aid, he could do his job as well or better than before. In March, the city settled, and Carione, who is just 48, recently went back to work. Now New York will set new rules for letting police use hearing aids.
WOLINSKY: I think even when the ADA passed, everybody was thinking about the iconic person in a wheelchair.
SHAPIRO: Attorney Sid Wolinsky.
WOLINSKY: In fact, this is an enormous group of Americans - people who don't define themselves as disabled. The person who's in their 80s and moving really slowly and can't manage a flight of steps doesn't think of themselves as disabled. They're just a little older. A person who can't manage a heavy suitcase when they're traveling - those are the people who are being helped by the ADA, and it's a large and growing population.
SHAPIRO: That's clear from U.S. Census Bureau numbers. About 1 out of 5 Americans has a disability, and the numbers keep going up as people age. About 40 percent of people 65 or older report they have one or more disabilities. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News, New York.
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