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ADA’s 25th anniversary marks celebration of progress

Some effects of the Americans with Disabilities Act can be seen in the most ordinary places. The ramps to get into Coca-Cola Field, the curb cuts on city sidewalks and the handicapped-parking spaces at neighborhood grocery stores are just a few examples of what some Buffalo residents with disabilities note as direct results of the law.

A lot has changed since the act was signed into law July 26, 1990, by then-President George H.W. Bush.

On Sunday at Canalside, people with disabilities and those without them gathered to celebrate the ADA’s anniversary and commemorate what has been accomplished as a result.

The event featured food, music and accessible activities, and was organized by about 20 organizations from across the city. It started at 2 p.m. and ended with nighttime fireworks scheduled for Wilkeson Pointe.

“Sure, it’s 25 years old, and there’s a lot of work to do, but we want to be able to give people the opportunity to stop and celebrate,” said Todd Vaarwerk, director of advocacy and public policy for Western New York Independent Living.

The ADA and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 provide protections for people with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, gender, age, religion and national origin.

The law ensures equal opportunity and equal access to businesses, employment, transportation and more. Some census tracts in Buffalo, Amherst, Lockport, Cheektowaga and Niagara Falls have more than 25 percent of residents living with some type of disability.

On Sunday, tents were set up that contained vendors and organizations that offered information and educational materials on the ADA and the organizations themselves.

Some attendees lounged in Adirondack chairs and gathered around picnic tables, while musical entertainment and speakers took turns addressing the crowd.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who spoke briefly, called the ADA “one of the greatest pieces of social justice legislation” to be passed by Congress.

Those in attendance were equally appreciative of what the ADA has accomplished.

Leo Vaarwerk, Todd’s brother, said he remembers riding the bus in 1980 when he had to wait longer since only every third bus was handicapped-accessible. Now, he said, they’re all accessible.

“With the ADA, people who have a disability don’t have to struggle anymore,” Vaarwerk said.

Even with the progress made in the last quarter-century, there are still areas that some attendees would like to see addressed.

For Todd Vaarwerk, that means people with disabilities getting out of nursing homes or assisted-living communities and into the community more often. He added that he would like for the same standards and expectations to be applied to people with disabilities as to everyone else.

Thomas Hagerty, who has had multiple sclerosis for more than 30 years, said that a lot has changed to make Buffalo more accessible since the ADA was passed, especially in the waterfront area. However, he said, enforcement of the act needs to be improved moving forward.

There’s also the issue of employment. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, only one-third of working-age people with disabilities are employed, compared with a little more than two-thirds of people without disabilities.

Michael Rembis, a member of the Disability Education and Advocacy Network who was injured in a hockey accident 26 years ago and uses a wheelchair, said that while access to businesses and transportation has improved, it can still be difficult for those with disabilities to find a job or get a good education.

“There’s been a lot of change in terms of the built environment, but there’s work to do,” Rembis said. “The community did a tremendous job organizing the event, and the turnout is good. I hope they can build on this to keep momentum moving forward, especially with the way things in Buffalo are changing.”