Hennepin County Medical Center - Local 977

ADA’s Benefits Extend Beyond Folks with Disabilities

Retiree Lenny Kukuruza continues to suffer from neck and back injuries received in a car crash 30 years ago.

Twenty-five years ago this month, the Americans with Disabilities Act became law. In simple terms, the law reduces barriers for Americans who live with a disability that affects their normal daily activities. But, especially as the nation ages, it is not just people with permanent disabilities who benefit from ADA.

Some impacts are obvious: Ramps replacing curbs, or as an option to stairs. Handicapped parking spots. Restrooms that are accessible for wheelchairs – and strollers.

Other changes are more subtle: Closed captioning on TV. Sign-language interpreters at speeches and other public events. Adjustable work furniture. Ergonomically designed tools. Campgrounds and picnic areas that are easier to use.

“We see greater access in a lot of instances,” says Margot Imdieke Cross, an accessibility specialist at the Minnesota Council on Disability. “But some things still need a lot of improvement. It’s easier to change a law than it is to change attitudes.”

Making jobs possible

Just AFSCME members and retirees benefit directly from the law, other members help put the principles of the law into practice every day.

At its core, ADA is a civil rights law. It prohibits discrimination in areas such as employment, public services, and transportation. For example, Cross says, public workers must be able to provide documents in large print. Public-service centers should have a counter that is only 36 inches high, to serve customers in a wheelchair.

ADA also means employers must make “reasonable accommodations” for workers with disabilities.

AFSCME members such as Koami Da Cruz and Lenny Kukuruza were able to build careers and independence because of ADA. That’s no small achievement; only 17.6 percent of people with disabilities have jobs, compared with 64 percent of adults overall.

Adjustable options at work

Kukuruza used a series of those “reasonable accommodations” before she retired from the state’s Department of Labor and Industry earlier this year.

Thirty years ago, Kukuruza suffered permanent neck and back injuries in a car crash. Since then, she’s dealt with arthritis, chronic pain, limited mobility, balance issues, and other symptoms.

That doesn’t mean she couldn’t do the paperwork, record-keeping, and data entry that were part of her job. But she did need a special chair. “Sitting up is very painful for me because of the way my spine was deformed,” Kukuruza says. “So, it had a higher back. It had a head rest. Every now and then, I really needed that, because my back was killing me. I needed to be able to lean back a bit, or lean forward a bit.”

Her computer monitors were mounted on adjustable arms so she could view them at comfortable angles. “Because I had to do so much phone work, I was insistent that I had a headset. With my neck injury, I can’t use the phone without it,” she says.

Da Cruz, of St. Paul Technical Local 1842, works at the Rice Street Library. Because of polio he contracted when he lived in Togo 20 years ago, Da Cruz now gets around primarily in a wheelchair.

Inside the library, work areas have hydraulic tables, which all workers can adjust to a height that works best for them. But there are still challenges. For example, it’s difficult (and sometimes impossible) for Da Cruz to reach books on the top and bottom shelves of library stacks.

Off the job, he faces other obstacles in just getting around. Curb cuts definitely help, “but in winter, it’s still a struggle.” Some buildings still don’t have ramps or elevators, or they lack power-assisted doors. “To hold the door with one hand, and wheel in with the other hand, it’s very challenging,” Da Cruz says.

Then there are frustrations that are not so noticeable. “Gas stations,” he says. At some pumps, the credit-card slot is too high for him to reach from his chair.

Local 1842’s Koami Da Cruz

Adapted from the July-August 2015 issue of Council 5’s Stepping Up magazine.

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