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Wheelchair bound since 1978, Mike Colletto lobbies at the Arizona Legislature for fire fighters, keenly aware that the Americans with Disabilities Act has literally and figuratively opened doors for him.

When a crippling fall at a construction site left him unable to walk, Colletto chose to remain active on behalf of unions, in large part because he deeply appreciated the benefits and wages he had received as a structural steel ironworker. It was a case of loyalty, and his way of saying thanks to the labor movement.

Mike Colletto, a lobbyist for the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona who has been in a wheelchair for 32 years, dealt with depression until waking up one morning and deciding to look at the “positive side.” (photo by Ryan Cook/rj cook photography)

Mike Colletto, a lobbyist for the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona who has been in a wheelchair for 32 years, dealt with depression until waking up one morning and deciding to look at the “positive side.” (photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Today, as the 20th anniversary of the signing of the ADA approaches, Colletto talks about the progress Arizona has made accommodating the needs of a growing handicapped population. His views, including how he is received at the Legislature, provide insight into the positives of the ADA and how attitudes of the general public and people with handicaps have changed.

But, the Arizona Office for Americans with Disabilities, created as a resource center in 1994 by then-Gov. Fife Symington, became a victim itself, suffering its demise during the state’s unprecedented budget crunch. Key figures in efforts to assist individuals with disabilities lament the closing of the office a year ago, but suggest that a legal challenge could be forthcoming.

Alan Ecker, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Administration, says state ADA office ceased to exist June 30, 2009. Its budget was $172,000. Calls or questions regarding ADA are handled by the DOA human resources division, Ecker says.

Title I of the federal ADA covers employment issues, Title II deals with access to government buildings and Title III applies to access to public accommodations, including movie theaters, restaurants and shopping malls. President George H.W. Bush signed the law on July 26, 1990.

Perhaps the biggest change is how people with handicaps feel about themselves. The ADA has brought the issue of disabilities to the forefront of people’s minds.

Phil Pangrazio, executive director of Arizona Bridge to Independent Living, which offers and promotes programs designed to empower people with disabilities to take personal responsibility and achieve independent lifestyles, has lived the life of a quadriplegic since an auto accident in 1979. Pangrazio says that ADA has made his existence considerably better, and not just because it has opened doors.

“We are able to live with a heck of a lot more dignity and respect,” he says. “That’s the biggest thing. The other stuff — those are all physical. Knocking down physical barriers — that’s great, but the ADA has changed the environment. Attitudinal changes have occurred. Mainstream America realizes that it’s good for our society that everybody gets to have a piece of the pie, to participate. That’s the bottom line.”

Ken Jacuzzi, a life-long victim of rheumatoid arthritis whose father designed a hydrotherapy pump that led to the development of popular spas, says the changes in attitudes and accommodations regarding the disabled were inevitable.

“ADA has impacted positively many public places — retail establishments, restaurants, movie theaters, stores,” Jacuzzi says. “It’s moving in that direction because of the baby boomers. With an aging population, people are living longer. When you live longer and work longer, you’re going to develop some type of impairment, or multiple impairments — hearing, seeing, cognitive, whatever. It behooves industry to respond to that very growing and dynamic marketplace, whether it’s a homebuilder or a manufacturer of individual products.”

Jacuzzi says he sees signs of change in the residential construction industry, despite some resistance. Some municipalities have passed what Jacuzzi refers to as “visitability” ordinances, which require single-family homes and condominiums to provide at least one door with easy access and without a step of any kind.

“That’s so anybody with a wheelchair or a walker can go in and out very easily,” he says.

Other construction improvements Jacuzzi would like to see include framing so grab bars can be easily installed in washrooms and wall plugs and light switches installed at heights appropriate for someone in a wheelchair.

“It wouldn’t change the cost of construction,” Jacuzzi says, “but the industry is reluctant to change because they say they’ve always done it that way.”

Colletto, the union lobbyist, focuses almost exclusively on workers’ compensation issues, but says if he could get one law passed it would be to eliminate a common 4-inch step at the entrance to many track homes.

Lobbying from a wheelchair isn’t as difficult as one might expect. While undergoing six months of rehabilitation, Colletto went through a period of depression. “Everybody does,” he says. “I woke up one morning and decided I had three ways to go — live happy, live miserable or not live at all. So I started looking at the positive side, and began helping other people at the rehab center. That did more to help me than anything else.”

Colletto returned to his union, Ironworkers Local 75, was elected to a low-level position, and later became legislative chairman for the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona.

“Early on, the only time I’d think about being handicapped was when I couldn’t physically do something, like get across a crowded room to talk to somebody,” he says.

When he first started lobbying, he was one of the first in a wheelchair. “But when access changed and people started seeing you more often, they became a little more sympathetic to the issues,” Colletto says. “It might be cynical to say, but it’s true — it gives you a leg up on people because they try to be nice to you. It kind of opens the door a little bit because it’s unusual. There are only a couple of us down there, so it’s beneficial that way. Honestly, I think the reason I have a good relationship with people is that I’m always straight with them.”

Sherri Collins, executive director of the Arizona Commission of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, mentions the telecommunications advances under Title IV of the ADA — requirements that address telephone and television access for people with hearing and speech disabilities.

“It was a huge breakthrough for people with hearing loss to be able to communicate with everybody by telephone,” says Collins, who herself has lost some ability to hear.

Basically, an operator facilitates communication between a person with a hearing loss and someone who hears well. Every state has a telecommunications relay service available 24-7, enabling callers with hearing and speech disabilities who use telecommunications devices to communicate with each other through a third party communications assistant. To access the system anywhere in the country, a person with a hearing or speaking disability merely dials 711.

Special hearing devices enable Collins and others with a hearing or seeing disability to enjoy movies, concerts and plays. For those who are completely deaf, some movie theaters provide special glasses that enable a person to see the dialog captioned across the bottom of the screen. For the blind, they hear brief descriptions of the action.

Collins pushes for education and awareness among the general public regarding the needs of those with a hearing loss. “In the medical community, a lot of doctors refuse to provide interpreters for patients,” she says. “I wish insurance providers would pay for interpreters as part of the bill when a person with hearing loss goes to a doctor. The burden shouldn’t be on the doctor. Interpreters can be expensive, but don’t penalize an individual from getting medical information.”

J.J. Rico, an attorney in the Tucson office of the Arizona Center for Disability Law, cites passage this year of S1232 by the Arizona Legislature as “great news.” It modifies Arizona statutes to mirror aspects of the federal ADA.

“Now we can focus on how to accommodate — or whether an employer can accommodate — a person with a disability, rather than trying to challenge someone’s disability and spending a lot of money and wasted time on that question,” Rico says. “We’re trying to get that person employed. One of the big movements is to have people with disabilities integrated in the community.”

Arizona is more progressive than many other states, offering numerous group homes with integrated community settings and only one institution where people with cognitive impairments wind up in a government-run system.

“In the past 20 years, folks are learning that reasonable accommodations are not expensive,” Rico says. “Individuals with disabilities have higher retention rates, for example, in food service positions.”

In recent years, some young men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan return home with various disabilities. They try to get a job or go back to school. “It’s helping the movement show a different face,” Rico says.

For many years, a lot of people assumed that a person with a disability is unable to function. “But that image that we draw when we see or hear the word disabled has changed,” Rico says. “Twenty years ago that person would be institutionalized. Integration in the community has helped folks realize that a disability could happen to any of us. In the area of employment, we have to be open to the idea that a person with a disability can work in any area, from service positions all the way up to attorneys and doctors.”

That will come, he says, with time, education and technology. Technology has expanded the ability for people with a disability to pursue education. Still, employers worry about the bottom line and how employing a person with a disability is going to impact business.

Pangrazio of Arizona Bridge to Independent Living mentions improvements for people with disabilities such as buses and light rail cars that are wheelchair accessible, restaurants that offer large print menus, accessible restrooms, sloping curbs at corners, and banks with talking ATMs. Many of the physical improvements aren’t much different than they were 10 years ago, Pangrazio says.

“I have seen quite a bit of change,” he says. “I’m a quadriplegic. I use a wheelchair to get around. I can’t walk. I have lived it through and through. But really, the most important thing ADA has done is that everybody thinks more about people with disabilities and that they have the right to participate in our communities. It has changed attitudes. It has certainly changed attitudes of people with disabilities, too. People with disabilities have more optimistic attitudes about what is possible.”

Yet, Pangrazio regrets the closing of Arizona’s ADA office. “It does trouble me and our community overall,” he says. “The state has an obligation to maintain the function of that office.”

He suggests that at some point the state will be challenged about whether officials are “dedicating necessary resources and fulfilling their obligations.”

Jacuzzi, who headed the state ADA office, also laments the closing. He says the state has put a human resources person in charge of ADA issues. “It was a mistake — pennywise and pound foolish,” Jacuzzi says. “I was not consulted, but decisions are made higher up. That’s the way it is. That’s how the cookie crumbles.”

Overall, Rico, the Tucson lawyer who primarily litigates employment issues under ADA, says, “I think we’re moving in the right direction. We’ve come a long way, but we’re not there yet.”

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