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A University Denied Lex Frieden Admission Because He Was Disabled. Then He Fought Back.

February 20, 2020
Source: Houston Chronicle (Texas)

[Photo caption:] Lex Fried[e]n, one of the original proponents of the Americans with Disabilities Act, holds a photo [of the universal symbol for accessibility] by Melissa Shapiro that hangs in his office at the Independent Living Research Utilization offices at TIRR Memorial Hermann [on] Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020 in Houston, [Texas].

[Photo caption:] Lex Fried[e]n, one of the original proponents of the Americans with Disabilities Act, during an interview in his office at the Independent Living Research Utilization offices at TIRR Memorial Hermann [on] Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020 in Houston, [Texas].

[Photo caption:] Former President George H.W. Bush stands with Lex Frieden, chairperson of the National Council on Disability, during a reception and presentation ceremony of the George Bush Medal for the Empowerment of People with Disabilities, [on] Monday, July 25, 2005 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

Lex Frieden vividly remembers when businesses, universities and politicians vigorously defended their right to deny services and employment to people with disabilities.

For Frieden, it was Oral Roberts University denying him admission because he required a wheelchair. He still chokes up over the despair he felt for his future more than 52 years ago.

“It was the first time in my life that I’d ever been told that I couldn’t do something — that I knew I could do — on the basis of a characteristic for which I had no control,” Frieden told me. “I immediately thought about what the civil rights people had experienced.”

Frieden joined the civil rights fight and in the 1980s became the executive director of the National Council on the Handicapped. He was one of the chief architects of the Americans with Disabilities Act, [(ADA)] which Congress passed 30 years ago in July.

The ADA bans unreasonable discrimination based on physical ability and requires a reasonable accommodation in public places.

Frieden’s journey began with a car crash that broke his neck when he was a freshman in college. He had been a good student, worked hard at rehabilitation, and was excited to return to school a year later when he received the rejection letter from the college closest to his parents’ home.

Tulsa University later admitted Frieden, and he eventually earned a master’s degree in psychology at the University of Houston. Frieden took his fight literally to the streets.

When Houston Mayor Fred Hofheinz and [sic] invited Houstonians to ride public buses for free one day in 1978, Freiden and 30 of his friends showed up.

“The mayor disappeared real fast because the press was really interested in seeing all these people getting out of their wheelchairs, onto the ground and dragging themselves up the steps of the buses,” Frieden said.

Hofheinz eventually agreed to install lifts in the city’s buses, and Frieden became a national figure. He began working with Congress in the 1980s.

His most prominent opponents were business interests, who did not want to change their operations, hiring practices or buildings.

Frieden and other activists stressed that the law would require only “reasonable accommodation.” And by making it easier for people with different abilities, businesses could expand their employee and customer base. After years of work and public pressure, the tide shifted.

“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce flipped, and the big companies said, ’We can afford this, this is not an issue for us,’” he explained.

Small businesses led by the National Federation of Independent Businesses took a while longer to convince. But today, the regulations no longer are considered an exceptional burden. The fight, though, is far from over, and business owners remain the biggest hindrance.

“We’re living 30 years later, and Uber says they’re not subject to the ADA. That they’re not obliged to carry people with disabilities,” Frieden said. Several class-action lawsuits are underway.

The unemployment rate among the disabled remains between 75 percent and 80 percent, the same as before the law, he added.

“Employers have changed their strategy. They no longer say, ’We’re not hiring you because you’re disabled.’ Now they say,’We’ve found a more talented applicant,’” Freiden said. “Last year, we discovered the city had dozens of job descriptions that required people to have [a] driver’s license. If your job doesn’t require you to drive, you don’t need a driver’s license.”

Property owners still skirt ADA rules. A major shopping district redesigned its sidewalks a few years ago, and despite complaints, refused to comply with the ADA. Frieden called the U.S. attorney, and only then did management make the necessary adjustments.

Looking back, the business community’s opposition to the ADA appears cruel and misguided. No business person still thinks it’s OK to discriminate against the disabled. But many harbor unconscious biases or do not recognize the barriers they allow to persist.

“If you don’t see people with disabilities in your business, then you ought to look at it and see what’s wrong because you’re missing 20 percent of the public,” Frieden advised. “If you’re sponsoring a meeting and you don’t see people with disabilities widely represented among your group, ask, ’What’s the problem here?’”

The ADA offers lessons for the fight to end discrimination based on other unalterable characteristics. Texas and the nation still lack laws protecting Americans against discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation. Some businesses are still defending their right to discriminate.

Americans are still perfecting our commitment to liberty and justice, but only because Lex Frieden and others like him are reminding businesses that fairness is as important as profits.

Link: Go to website for News Source
https://www.houstonchronicle.com/business/columnists/tomlinson/article/Thirty-years-later-ADA-not-a-handicap-on-business-15065967.php


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