A wide shot of the Andes Mountains with a snow covered Mt. Ausangate in the center. The 2020 team of eleven are hiking in the foreground on a beautiful day.

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Wrestling with Reasonable – The ADA and Its Powerful Impact
24 Jan
By 2020
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by Randy Pierce

Without the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I would not be allowed the benefits of Quinn in most public places. During my time confined to a wheelchair, I was even more amazed at how many places were still out of my reach, despite the requirements of the ADA. This troubled me considerably, and yet it is not uncommon for me to hear discussion about what defines a “reasonable accommodation” such as the ADA requires. So it is that I and many others wrestle with this notion of reasonable accommodations.

In 1999, the Appalachian Mountain Club was required to provide wheelchair access to Galehead Hut, located 3800 feet up a rather challenging trail. Truthfully, when I hear this, I think that any person using a wheelchair capable of making it up the trail itself ought to be able to handle the additional challenge of a less-accessible hut. However, perhaps I might similarly be expected to use my cane despite the significant efficiency that I get from Quinn, rather than expose someone with allergies to my service dog. How do we measure this word “reasonable” and reconcile the costs or impacts of achieving it?

The ADA requirements are for public locations that involve public funds to maintain or sustain them. Whether it is the roads to the location or the various funded agencies involved in the location’s existence, all of these things use public funds. People with disabilities are not exempt from the taxes that support these locations, and it is a shame when they cannot access these services.

So the question is what is the additional price, fiscally or otherwise, to enable a reasonable accommodation? In the case of the hut, the price was a ramp, wider bathroom stalls, and support bars. In the case of an 1800s-converted home or restaurant, however, it might be substantially more to manage an elevator replacement for stairs. Ultimately, people’s definition of “reasonable accommodation” may vary greatly. I expect that the business owner required to undertake costly renovations for accessibility, which may not be used much, views such requirements as unreasonable. Riding a kitchen trash lift to get to a restaurant for a gathering of friends seems equally unreasonable – and yes, I have had to do this. In fact, at the MBTA, I was carried down multiple sets of stairs due to the elevator lift being broken, despite my calling ahead for a trip to Fenway Park. A balance does not have to demean, humiliate, or bar the way for someone facing such a challenge. A balance does not force the rest of society to install a costly solution that will never be used. Each of us will hopefully come to a comfortable definition as to what is reasonable; I just hope a little exploration and evaluation of all factors is involved. I think each extreme of the issue has, at times, attempted abusive approaches, and those negative approaches are the benchmark for arguments on the opposite side. I hope I can find the humane middle ground and entice a better appreciation of what is reasonable.

The first year Galehead Hut opened saw a group that included three people requiring wheelchairs. I am not sure if Geoff Krill, Nicole Haley, or Craig Gray would have made the 12-hour journey up to the hut without the modifications. I am also uncertain if the estimated $30,000 for the modifications to the hut is reasonable, considering how many people will take advantage of such modifications. I do know that the inspiration and hope brought on by their accomplishments is very cheap at that price. When I stood on the porch of Galehead hut last May, amazed by Quinn’s work in getting me there, I thought of those three in their wheelchairs, and the barriers they broke. I was more than impressed!

6 responses to “Wrestling with Reasonable – The ADA and Its Powerful Impact”

  1. Jay Sager says:

    Double amputee Mark Inglis climbed Mount Everest, does this mean we need to make Everest “accessible”. Of course not. But this is the rub when you have to try and decide what is reasonable. I want to walk on the moon but i am not an astronaut. Randy said three people made the journey to the hut the first year after the modifications so obviously it was worth every penny for them and there party. I would hate to see good work go unused so in this regard the right decision was made.
    P.S. NASA Just sent me another refusal letter to become an astronaut. I think I’ll stick to hiking this summer.

    Jay R. Sager

  2. Bob & Geri says:

    Those people that went to the Galehead Hut in wheelshairs had a large crew with them to carry them much of the way! So clearly they could have also been carried up 3 steps to the porch. Their trip was courages for sure, but was done to call attention to the modifications at the hut.

    $30,000 for a ramp, wider bathroom stalls, and support bars? Would love to see the details behind that as it seems very high. But, hey – it was only tax dollars.

    It is sad that common sense is not used. Laws can’t allow for that unfortantly. That money could have done much more for many more handicapped users, if used elsewhere.

    Now that they are modifying the Madison hut I wonder if the same amount of money will be spent for simlar modifications there.

  3. Jay Sager says:

    Marching up such a trail and enduring the embarrassment of people helping you over immovable objects over a period of 12 hours only to have to ask for help with basic personal necessities as taking a pee or emptying a colostomy bag is beyond even my bold ability. Would you rather pay 30K for a drug rehab for those who have done nothing for our community other than suck your dollars dry for clean needles or food stamps? I am a combat veteran and I would rather pay my hard earned tax money for ONE person to experience the high of nature than 100 lazy “you owe me a living” tax sucking leaches. I understand you can see that amount of money could have done more good for more people but I have learned from Randy and Quinn that quality does out weigh quantity. I live in a lower middle class neighborhood and I see first hand the waste that is called welfare. If you can take the money from just my neighborhood of “users” you could fund the “Madison” and many more. I know it’s a cold equation but I would rather see one person with vision reach the summit than five hundred cash in welfare for lottery tickets or alcohol.

  4. Randy says:

    Actually Bob the requirement for the group of five with three wheelchairs was that nobody carried them at any point on the hike. I didn’t know that until I did the research on it. So yes, they had a large group and they had much of their equipment carried at many points but not a single person carried any of the three in wheelchairs or two on crutches. THis includes through the stream crossings and all other obstacles.

    This surprised me and I still do not entirely know how they managed a few of those places but your information is wrong by the reports I’ve read.

    Now if they can navigate all those things then I would think they could indeed navigate the steps into a place. The challenge is ensuring doors are wide enough for wheelcharis to fit through them more than the ‘need’ for a ramp. I too am amazed that the listed ‘modifications’ would have an estimated cost of 30,000 dollars.

    The new Madison hut is allegedly also ‘accessible.’ We intend to visit that hut this year in fact as Mt. Adams and Madison are in our plans for this year!

  5. Jenifer says:

    Factual question: Are tax dollars really paying for the AMC’s hut modifications, or does the money come from AMC’s private funds? I think it’s the latter, but please correct me if I’m wrong.

  6. Jenifer says:

    In any case, I’m of two minds on this question, and I have three points to make.

    First, I see accessibility as comparable to building codes. If I decide right now to renovate my own bathroom, I don’t really have a free hand in designing and engineering it — its wiring and layout have to meet a minimum safety standard set by the government. Indirectly, we set that standard as a society: we’ve decided that it’s okay to impose costs on private entities in order to achieve the goal of safe buildings. No one complains about the basic idea here. (Though we certainly can and do complain about the specifics! 🙂 Hey, I like my toilet where it is, thankyaverymuch, so don’t force me to move it away from the wall!)

    Anyway, this is even more pertinent to public buildings, even the AMC huts. When I walk into a public space, I implicitly trust that it’s been built to a minimum safety standard.

    In my view, same goes for accessiblity for disabled people. It’s partly about safety for the individuals involved, of course, but it’s also about dignity. Here in America, we aspire to be a compassionate society. Dignity and capability for the less fortunate among us is an important value to us, and we’re willing to put the weight of government behind that value, just as we do for safety.

    On the other hand, I think that $30,000 of anyone’s money (taxes, AMC donations, whatever) for the benefit of an extraordinarily small number of people is little extreme. Maybe a cost/benefit analysis should be done before the government *requires* that a certain kind of accommodation be made. How many disabled people are likely to use this ramp, if it gets built? What is their alternative if it isn’t built to code? I won’t fool myself into thinking such an analysis is easy — it’s not — but the extremes are silly and wasteful of other people’s money.

    Finally, I’d like to point out that accessibility often affects design and engineering in interesting and profound ways — benefits made for a small population can spill over into benefits for everyone, unpredictably. Curb cuts and ramps are the classic example: not only are they useful (and mandated) for wheelchairs, but they’re also great for strollers, rolling luggage, scooters, wagons, bicycles, etc. Another example: when public bathroom sinks are placed low and close to the edge of the counter, my 4-year-old can reach them (as well as people in wheelchairs). And when I create websites now, I begin a design with an “accessibility first” approach — that sets my design direction for an HTML page in a way that almost always makes it easier for mobile, SEO, auto translation, and other ways of getting at the page info.

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