In the windup to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Chuck Frayer wrote more than a dozen pages about wilderness access that was whittled down to about two sentences in the final version of the law.
Still, he thinks back fondly on his time in Washington, D.C., and went on to write design guidebooks about how to make recreation areas more accessible for people with disabilities like himself.
The Vancouver resident has used a wheelchair since he was injured in a car crash at age 19. Going out and doing things was just part of his personality, he said. So, he was going to do what he wanted to do whether on two feet or two wheels.
At 69, he’s experienced both sides of the coin: Life before and after the ADA. While many strides have been made, there’s a lot left to do, he said.
“Thirty years is really not that long. It really isn’t,” he said.
Before the ADA was enacted into law 30 years ago, not much thought was given to making getting around easier for people with disabilities. When Frayer was injured, the first thing he was taught in rehab (after learning how to get dressed) was how to pop a wheelie and jump a 6-inch sidewalk curb.
The concept behind the ADA — making all aspects of public life open and available regardless of disability — wasn’t exactly well-received.
“It was pretty controversial, actually,” said Dave Kelly, the former executive director of the Area Agency on Aging and Disabilities of Southwest Washington.
People were concerned it would cost too much or be too difficult to retrofit buildings and invest in new architectural design.
“I can’t think of a better way to spend money than to help people who are struggling with daily life,” Kelly said.
When the act was established, he said, people were just waking up to the idea that the way things were prevented people from making the most of the abilities they have. What’s more, Kelly said, statistics indicate about one in four people has some form of disability. And the concept of disability is evolving. The accommodations that have come about due to the ADA impact more than those with an apparent impairment.
Opening up nature
Frayer worked 43 years for the U.S. Forest Service, before and after the ADA became law. His focus on recreation in Oregon and Washington landed him on the Mount St. Helens development committee. (Frayer said the team was given money and told, “Do great things.”)
“The ADA put some teeth to how to design for persons with disabilities,” he said.
It was a balance keeping nature as natural as possible while making it as accessible as possible.
He remembers in the 1990s, higher-ups were still wondering why accommodations had to be made. They told Frayer — to his chagrin — “We never see you guys out there.” Frayer also had to educate people about how different types of recreation areas require different types of accessibility. The Columbia River Gorge, for instance, is considered semi-urban due to its proximity to a metro area. It’s different from the more primitive areas around Mount Adams or Mount St. Helens.
“The Gorge has really ended up being a pretty good example of accessibility for everybody,” he said.
As more and more outdoor areas became open to all, thanks in part of Frayer’s work, effort was put into making sure people knew what was available.
Retired local radio host John Williams’ friend Grant McOmie, a KGW outdoors reporter, had a show about exploring the Pacific Northwest. He pitched a pilot to McOmie for a show describing the accessibility of outdoor areas. Williams, 69, uses a wheelchair for long distances and leg braces for short distances, a result of contracting polio when he was 3 months old.
“This is how I grew up. I never knew anything else,” Williams said.
One thing led to another, and Frayer and Williams collaborated on a series of videos with the Forest Service in the 2010s called “Accessible Adventures.”
The pair started in the Gorge, making Multnomah Falls and its lodge, built in 1925, one of their first features.
“As is the case with most buildings of the past, travelers with disabilities really weren’t factored into the design,” Williams said in the video.
In 1994, extensive renovations, including an elevator, made the Multnomah Lodge more accessible, and 2003 saw the completion of a viewing area for the falls.
In the video, Williams notes how people can get around, where they can and can’t go, what sort of inclines the ramps have and whether they’re better suited to a power chair.
“Accessible Adventures” videos were available on various government websites and can still be found on the Forest Service’s’ YouTube page.
Williams and Frayer filmed some less obvious “Accessible Adventures,” such as whitewater rafting in White Salmon, driving the Oregon sand dunes in a dune buggy, fly fishing from a drift boat on the McKenzie River and skiing on Mount Hood using a dual ski.
“Unfortunately, we ran out of funds and Chuck retired,” Williams said.
Change slow in coming
A lot of strides have been made since Williams moved to the area in 1977. He remembers going to a restaurant on Marine Drive in Portland and inside the front door, next to a set of stairs leading to the restaurant, was a sign that read: “For handicapped assistance come upstairs.”
He knows change is slow.
“It’s like everything else in this country. It takes time. It takes money,” Williams said.
As Frayer and Williams settle into retirement, it’s become more apparent to them how a lack of adherence to the ADA can be a real barrier for all people. An old sidewalk can impede a parent pushing a stroller or an older person with balance issues walking their dog. Clark County is among many communities seeing a boom in its senior population.
Frayer acknowledges that some of the ramps he designed at age 30 wouldn’t work for him today at age 69 due to their steepness; he doesn’t have the upper body strength to navigate them.
With the “Accessible Adventures” series, Williams found he received just as many comments from people with disabilities as he did from older folks and parents with small children.
“Accessibility it not just for people like us who have a so-called disability,” Williams said.
Frayer said more needs to be done around employing people with disabilities and building private homes that are more accessible. He knows a lot of retirement communities are being built but questions whether they are built the right way.
“It isn’t perfect, and there’s still a lot of roadblocks, but our society has adapted the ADA in a meaningful way,” said Kelly. “Do we need to do more? Absolutely. Do we need to focus on people with mental health disabilities? Absolutely.”
Beyond what the ADA does physically and practically, it also tells society to be more conscientious about people living with disabilities, Kelly said. It was a victory for people who tend to be othered.
“I really don’t think people are mean-spirited or spiteful or anything else. I think they’re just uneducated about the subject,” Williams said.
Williams believes the word “disability” casts an unfair shadow on people.
“Nothing’s ever slowed me down. I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do and some things I shouldn’t have,” he said with a laugh.
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He knows there are a lot of things he can do and places he can go, but Williams acknowledges not everywhere can be fully accessible. There will never be a paved pathway to the top of Mount St. Helens — as glorious as the view is from the top — and he’s OK with that.
“It’s up to you to make or break your life,” he said.