If not for the Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA), Michelle Duprey might not have been able to wheel her way up to the stage of the library’s “program room.”
As New Haven prepared to begin a three-day commemoration of the ADA’s 25th anniversary, Duprey pointed to the ramp as an example of the progress the city has made thanks to increased awareness of the needs of disabled people in getting around town.
Duprey, the city’s foremost disabilities advocate and director and sole staffer of the city’s Department of Services for Persons with Disabilities, joined Mayor Toni Harp and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy at City Hall Tuesday to kick off the commemoration, focusing on both victories and work that remains to be done.
To show one of those victories before Tuesday afternoon’s press conference, Duprey had to take a roundabout route.
She directed her motorized wheelchair down the ramp adjacent the main library branch at 133 Elm St. and pressed the blue wheelchair button to open the door to the program room. It was locked. She turned and headed back up the ramp to the library’s elevator, accessible from the outside, and pressed the button for the first floor.
The elevator let her out just inside the first double doors of the library. She directed her wheelchair through the main doors, past the circulation desk, to the internal elevator and pressed the button for the lobby.
In the lobby, Duprey turned the corner and approached the program room. It was unlocked, and she entered. In old buildings, “access is a bit circuitous,” she said, “but if it works, it works.”
The program room became wheelchair accessible a few years ago when the city’s engineering department approached Duprey about putting a ramp at the side for speakers to wheel up to the stage.
Harp Tuesday presented Duprey with a proclamation to “recognize a distinction she will receive very soon,” the Maria Colon Sanchez Award for Community Activism. Duprey will be honored by the Commission of Human Rights and Opportunity July 30 “because of her dedication to her community” and history of grassroots organization.
Duprey began in the department in 1998, hired to “address some issues the city had,” mainly lawsuits about its “failure to accommodate” people with disabilities. She now focuses on addressing issues in the workplace, “to keep the city from having complaints,” including employee issues and zoning accommodations. She ensures housing for people with developmental disabilities is consistent with the ADA and Fair Housing Act.
And she makes sure people with disabilities are physically able to navigate the city. Though the ADA prompted large improvements in accessibility and quality of life for people of disabilities, Duprey said, advocates still have work to do to make employers and business owners comply with the law.
Malloy, who has a learning disability, spoke of his own journey at Tuesday’s event.
He said he chose Boston College’s law school because it was the only institution that automatically allowed him to practice law in the state without taking the bar exam. “It’s difficult for me to process language in written form,” he said.
After graduating from law school, he worked with others to win the right to take the essay portion of the bar exam orally in a few states. Many misconceptions exist about the ADA, including that “it’s hard to accommodate the workplace for people with learning” or physical disabilities. In reality, it costs little to nothing, he said.
In a society with a “rapidly aging” population, the number of people with disabilities is increasing, as well as “spikes in certain abnormalities,” Malloy said. “I have a grandnephew and grandniece on the spectrum.” He said he would do his best to ensure the state government was being responsive to those groups.
The Road Ahead
Advocates still have to work to change ignorant or negative attitudes about people with disabilities, Duprey said. Some business owners refuse to let service animals in their stores.
“People with disabilities have a lot of buying power,” she said. “There are places I won’t go because I know they’re not accessible. I’m not interested in spending my money there.”
Businesses have financial incentives for increasing accessibility, including “rich tax breaks,” but many are not aware of the benefits or of the ways they are excluding people with disabilities, she said. “I’ve heard in the past restaurants that are not accessible will say, ‘No one with a disability comes in here.’ And I’ll say, ‘Duh. We don’t come in because you’re not accessible.’”
A couple of local non-profits—Center for Disability Rights and Agency on Aging of South Central Connecticut—have sprung up to tackle issues facing people with disabilities, so she said “most people are getting covered,” but not fast enough.
The blue wheelchair button to leave the program room Tuesday morning was not working as Duprey left the library. But the door was unlocked from the inside, and she directed her wheelchair out.