Eventually, another attorney filed a class-action lawsuit seeking to force Gallatin County to make the courthouse ADA-compliant, and I was proud to have my name added as a plaintiff. Another named plaintiff, Elsie Ewbank, was an amputee, and testified in her deposition that to get to the second floor of the courthouse, she had to “scoot up the stairs on her butt lifting [her]self with [her] arms.” I imagined how humiliating that must have been. The county complained about how much it would cost to bring the courthouse into compliance, but the necessary renovations were finally made.
Just east of Gallatin County, the Grant County Courthouse had an elevator, but it was the old-fashioned kind, with a wrought-iron sliding gate and a sliding door, both of which had to be opened manually, which meant that I always needed help to get in. The door was barely wide enough for my chair, the cabin was so small that I could not turn around, and when I got to the next level, if the elevator floor did not align perfectly with the hallway floor (which was almost all the time), someone would have to lift my chair up a few inches to get me out.
When a new federal courthouse opened in Covington, Kentucky in 1999, I eagerly anticipated the handicap-accessible amenities that I imagined the new building would have. However, the first day I arrived for a bankruptcy hearing at the new courthouse, I was surprised to discover there were no handicap parking spaces for the public—just two in the gated parking lot for judges and courthouse staff. Similarly, the new (at that time) Kenton County Justice Center, a few blocks away, did not have a wheelchair ramp at the entrance; just a cheap mechanical lift. Anyone needing to use it would have to wait for a security guard to come out with a key to turn it on just to go up a half-flight of stairs.
One day I received a call from a reporter who was working on a story for The Kentucky Post about courthouses being inaccessible to wheelchairs. Very quickly after the story ran, handicap parking spaces appeared outside the federal courthouse. A few months later, the Kenton County Justice Center replaced the cheap little porch lift, which probably had cost about four-thousand dollars, with an elevator that cost one-hundred-seventy thousand dollars. The new elevator was already being planned before the newspaper article ran, but the story helped shed light on a problem that affected many disabled people who needed to use those courthouses (though it would have been a lot cheaper and easier to build a wheelchair ramp in the first place).
One issue that the ADA did not address adequately (and still does not, in my opinion) is the ability for disabled people, particularly those in wheelchairs, to exit the upper floors of a building when elevators cannot be used. One day, when I was on the fourth floor of a courthouse for a hearing, the alarm went off, shutting off the elevators automatically. While exiting the hearing room on his way to the stairwell, along with everyone else, a friend and colleague jokingly told me, “Just wait by the elevator. It’s probably a false alarm, but if it’s not, I’ll make sure your family gets a good settlement.” Since we were friends, his joke did not offend me, but it made me think seriously about how I would get out of a tall building in the event of a fire. I still don’t know.
The ADA remains a work in progress. Perhaps there will never be a perfect system to address all the needs of every disabled person. However, I appreciate the efforts of those who respect the spirit of the ADA and strive to adhere to it. Disabled people have much to contribute in practically every field, if given a chance. I am proud to be part of the legal profession and I am grateful to my colleagues and judges who treat me as a peer.