The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was one of the first formal measures aimed at increasing equal treatment and access for people with disabilities in the U.S., but it did not transform the country into a wheelchair-friendly paradise.
This disconnect between policy and practice became quite clear to the nearly 70 local business, government and nonprofit leaders who are members of the 41st Leadership San Antonio (LSA) class that took part in a wheelchair challenge in downtown San Antonio on Wednesday, June 1.
“This turned into a real eye opener for all of us,” said Kevin Crawford, member of the LSA 41 Do the Right Thing team. “It started as a quick lesson down the street to say, ‘hey, it’s not that easy, is it?’ But we didn’t realize just how difficult it was to access darn near everything. Even places that were ADA compliant.”
Members of the LSA 41 class were assigned the topic of “Do the Right Thing,” and day’s activities was designed to show first-hand the mobility challenges that people with disabilities experience each day. It illustrated that each person, able-bodied or otherwise, can make a difference in our community.
The LSA 41 class was divided into teams of two. Each team was assigned a single wheelchair and directed to take turns using the wheelchair to visit various locations throughout downtown. The destinations included tourist locations such as the River Walk, civic buildings like City Hall and the Bexar County Courthouse, and various private sector businesses. As part of the activity, the teams were asked to submit photos and comments to document their experiences.
The feedback provided by the LSA 41 class was submitted to Judy Babbitt, at the City of San Antonio’s Disability Access Office. In response to the LSA 41 wheelchair challenge, Babbitt commented that the activity “was well named,” and that downtown sidewalks offer special challenges.
“While each LSA participant had a walking partner to help them around the hard parts, independent chair users do not have such helpers,” Babbitt said. “San Antonio has completed significant projects to assure corners are ramped, major obstructions removed and basic widths are adhered to, and firsthand experience in a wheelchair will confirm both improvements made and remaining difficulties.”
Overall, the LSA 41 class appreciated the experience and took valuable lessons away with them. Here are a few of their comments:
“Reminds me how much we take it for granted,” stated Rob Wicall.
“Thank you Numotion for a fun but humbling lesson about wheelchair accessibility in San Antonio,” stated Brian Hurtak.
Lisa Brunsvold stated that the experience made her feel as if she “had to enter establishments (as if she was) a second or third class citizen.”
The experience also gave many of the LSA 41 members a renewed appreciation for the kindness of strangers as many commented on how they received much needed help from others throughout downtown San Antonio.
“Thank the good lord for courteous San Antonians,” stated Christina Castaño Bradshaw, who summed up the sentiment of many LSAers. “They were all around to jump up and push (or) pull doors open when necessary.”
The difficulty of the wheelchair challenge was acknowledged by all participants, and many shed light on specific problems accessing the River Walk and City Hall. The challenges associated with disability access to City Hall is nothing new to Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who happened upon the LSA 41 class during the wheelchair challenge.
An LSA alum, Treviño was pleased to see the LSA 41 class undertaking such a transformative experience. To address the access challenge at City Hall, Treviño is leading an effort with the assistance of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects to launch an “Accessibility for All” design competition to make the front entrance of City Hall accessible to people using wheelchairs or who have other mobility challenges.
The LSA 41 wheelchair challenge was inspired by Archer Hadley, a young man with cerebral palsy who is a proud student at the University of Texas at Austin and has distinguished himself as a powerful advocate for disability access.
Since he spearheaded the incredibly successful wheelchair challenge as a senior at Austin High School in 2014, Hadley has gone on to be recognized by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and he is now a member of the Texas Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities. Hadley has even been recognized on a national level ever since “The Archer Hadley Story” aired at the White House as part of the 2015 White House Student Film Festival, and again as part of the 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival.
Shawne Zakaria, member of the LSA 41 Do the Right Thing team and executive director of Eva’s Heroes, has worked with Hadley to help raise awareness about disability issues. Given her relationship with Hadley, Zakaria was familiar with his successful wheelchair challenge and she wanted her LSA classmates to experience it here in San Antonio. Even though facilities are ADA compliant, there is a need for more, Zakaria said.
“In the one-and-a-half-hour wheelchair challenge, LSA members learned firsthand how difficult it is to navigate around town in a wheelchair,” she added. “The experience was challenging for them, both physically and emotionally. They learned what someone with limited mobility goes through every day.”
The LSA 41 wheelchair challenge ended with a presentation by Hadley. The class was inspired by his story, and in his speech, Hadley asked each person to evaluate their own leadership style.
“I hope you will examine yourselves and your attitudes toward people with special needs. I want you to live outside of your box, challenge yourselves in uncomfortable ways and take risks in your leadership positions,” Hadley told the LSA 41 class. “Hire, mentor or teach leadership skills to a person with a disability.”
Hadley’s message and the experience of the wheelchair challenge was well received by the LSA 41 class.
The lessons of the day were best summed up by Melissa Capello Havrda.
“I truly had no idea how difficult, cumbersome and physically exhausting it is to use a wheelchair, and I am perfectly healthy,” Capello Havrda said. “I respect those who must use a wheelchair without the benefit of physical health.”
That was the desired outcome of the wheelchair challenge: To give the LSA 41 class the opportunity to better understand what those with disabilities encounter every day, and as Hadley demonstrated, that everyone has an opportunity to make a difference. The empathy created by this experience will mean little, however, if it is not translated into action. Inspiring San Antonio’s leaders to action was, after all, the overarching message of the LSA 41 Do the Right Thing class day.
“Advocating for a system that serves all of us can only be successful if the advocates become educated in the legal requirements and the local codes, learning to use that knowledge to bring changes,” Babbit added. “Creating a responsive system built through partnerships is, in the long run, advocacy that carries the day.”
San Antonio is a great place to live, work and play, but there is more that each of us can do to improve our beloved city. Now, having read this article, the challenge is yours to go do the right thing – go do something to make San Antonio a better place.
This article was submitted to the Rivard Report by the members of the LSA 41 Do the Right Thing team: Cariño Cortez, Project Manager/Chef, Mi Tierra Café; Kevin Crawford, Broker/Owner, Crawford Luxury; Patricia Muzquiz-Cantor, Assistant. Director, City of San Antonio Convention & Sports Facilities; Steven Schauer, Manager of External Communications, San Antonio River Authority; Dr. Parin Shah, President & Medical Director, Emerge Physicians; Teno Villarreal, Owner, Teno Strategies; Shawne Zakaria, Executive Director, Eva’s Heroes; Martha Martinez-Flores, Owner/Creative Director, MM Creative; and Jay Uribe, President & Co-Founder, Mobius Partners.
Top image: Michael Cortez, Jennifer Duplantis, Lisa Brunsvold and Art Hall crossing Flores Street. Photo by Larry Servin.