January 20, 2008
President Bush recently appointed J.R. Harding, a Tallahassee program administrator at the Florida Department of Education, to a second term on the U.S. Access Board, the group that reports to the president on compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The news, though significant, does not begin to tell the story — either about a remarkable man or accessibility for people with physical limitations nearly a generation after passage of the landmark federal legislation aimed at giving it to them.
More than 3 million people with disabilities live in Florida, the U.S. Census reports. It now becomes Harding’s job to watch over their ability to live full lives.
More than 18 years after ADA’s passage, accessibility needs are far from solved, he said. But headway has been made.
Sharon Ofuani, director of Tallahassee’s Office of Equity and Workforce Development, said complaints about access to jobs and buildings are rare here.
That may be because of the building permit process. Ronnie Spooner, building official in charge of the city’s Building Inspection Division, estimates 75 percent or more of permit applications come to his department with accessibility problems.
“Most of the time it’s not a lack of compliance,” Spooner said. Instead, builders frequently fail to note compliance on the application.
“Most clients understand their customers need access,” said Ed Dion, whose construction company specializes in renovations.
In terms of access, Harding is a man on a mission. It is clear he is a formidable foe and adept advocate.
Harding’s mission started unexpectedly on a day when the shocking happened.
Oddly enough, Harding is a champion for the disabled and a quadriplegic today because he decided to walk away from a fight. On a September day when he was 17, Harding was engaged in a pursuit common among teenage boys: scrapping over a girl. Harding had decided to walk away when a blow from behind removed that capacity forever.
Since that day, Harding has required assistance to function. He is paralyzed from just below his shoulder blades. Each day an assistant dresses him, helps him with bodily functions, and sits him in his electric-powered wheelchair.
Then, off he goes to face the world, often to days that require doing battle on behalf of others with a myriad of challenges and impairments.
While Harding is gregarious by nature and seemingly infinitely patient with his own limitations, he becomes agitated when confronted with barriers others must face. This flight to fight has brought him roles on nearly a dozen boards and commissions over the years, including the U.S. Accessibility Board, the Florida Governor’s Commission on Disabilities, the Florida Building Commission, the Transportation Disadvantaged Commission and a five-year stint on the Governor’s ADA Working Group.
People who need daily assistance to function have to take home very high salaries just to be able to work, he said.
“Until we clear the $100,000 (barrier), life just beats the snot out of us,” he said.
Harding is an example. He has hired help from the time he is gotten up in the morning until he is put to bed at night. Annual cost for that alone is more than $30,000.
Harding’s life experience adds reality to determinations about the adequacy of buildings to accommodate people with disabilities. He speaks passionately about inadequate restrooms, slopes too steep to be traversed by a wheelchair and the like. Even so, he acknowledges that those not dealing with physical limitations often cannot readily understand the need for ADA requirements.
Nor is it easy, he acknowledges, for builders and building owners to see problems.
Asked if America will ever overcome these problems, he said no.
“We started on an eight-lane highway with much to be done,” he said. “Today, we’re on a six-lane highway with many problems solved, but many still to be overcome.”
[More information about Harding and challenges facing people with disabilities and business will be covered in the next issue of Business Matters magazine available Tuesday.]
Contact Business Matters Editor Steve Liner at (850) 599-2238 or email@example.com.
Business Matters Editor, Tallahassee Democrat