Mental health of persons with disabilities: Accessibility

A friend of mine asked me last week, “With all that you have been through in your life, and especially your having Cancer and being in treatment for over 20 years, how do you manage to do so much?” My answer is rather simple: I always place my thoughts toward the positive, avoid the negative; “put one foot in front of the other” and keep moving forward! I live the journey of life!

Recently my wife and I had to take an aircraft to Houston for my tri-monthly treatment at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. As I am a Disabled Veteran, with limited mobility, and as usual I contacted the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to assist my wife and I through the airport screening process at Valley International Airport here in Harlingen.

My wife and I are aged, and I have an inability to stand for long periods of time; or to walk long distances for that matter. We were met by the TSA Supervisor at check in, and she assisted my wife and I through Priority Screening.

They eased the process for us timely and most efficiently.

All of the TSA folks there were really, really nice…they respect Veterans, and especially us who have a service connected disabling condition.

I might add that the folks at Southwest Airlines have always been most accommodating to persons with a disability, and likewise have the upmost respect and consideration for us Veterans.

Upon our return from Houston, the picture was entirely different. It happened to be at the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend, and at Houston Hobby Airport there was no one to assist us at all. I had just finished a grueling week of physical exams and treatment at M.D. Anderson, and with my degenerative spinal condition, I was extremely fatigued.

I asked for the TSA supervisor as I was instructed to do prior to the flight, but was rudely told to get in the line, despite my obvious limited mobility and wearing a veteran shirt and cap; in honor of my fallen comrades this Memorial Day. There was no priority screening for persons with disabilities at all. The lines through screening were complicated, long and arduous; and most of the TSA agents were extremely rude and discourteous; it was obvious that they were getting stressed out with the many lines of people…those who had delayed flights due to weather, etc.

It was hard for me to comprehend how the agents there differed so much from those at Harlingen, especially since they worked for the same Administration; the TSA. For those who have not been at Houston Hobby Airport, let me assure you that it is a long way to the gates from the screening process. There were no courtesy motorized carts to accommodate persons with disabilities, although my wife and I observed the airport personnel riding around on carts or standing around and chatting among themselves..not paying attention to, and quite oblivious to, anyone else around them.

With support of my cane, and my dear wife’s assistance, we managed the long journey to the gate unaided. My thoughts immediately turned to others with a greater disability than myself…many do not fly as a result of all of the hassle they must put up with; and for those that do, what they must put up with when they fly.

As a disclaimer I am not casting despairingly on the TSA; they are so very necessary for the protection of our citizenry, and for the most part are wonderful Men and Women in service to our great nation.

The whole point of this article is truly not about me, but to help bring about awareness to the general public on the need for accessibility to services by those with a true disability…why it is important. Since the passage of the American Disability Rights Act in 1990, and the state and community laws and ordinances that followed; the Act prohibits, among other things, discrimination based on disability; and most especially having accessibility to services.

Access in crossing the street at intersections, handicapped parking, handicapped public restrooms, eased access in buildings, etc. are but a few of the accessibilities that have been established. The enforcement of this law has always been a problem, and varies from community to community.

In my many, many years of working in the Health Services across this great state, and most especially serving those with mental illness, developmental disorders, and substance use disorders; my colleagues and I were most attuned to the various disabilities encountered on a daily basis. I must admit, that since my appointment by the Governor to the Texas Independent Living Council that I am much more in tune to the subject of Persons With Disabilities than ever before.

It is a very complicated and involves many state agencies…agencies providing services for the vision impaired and blind, Veterans with disabilities, the aged, the hearing impaired, children and adults with developmental disability, persons with mental illnesses, etc; and as is the subject of this article — accessibility to services.

The State Council works in conjunction with the 38 Independent Living services, regionalized throughout the state; our region is serviced by the Valley Association for Independent Living (VAIL) in McAllen. When I was working with a State Center for the mental health and developmental disorders, I worked closely with VAIL in assisting those being discharged in follow up services they would require; such as housing, out-patient medical care, etc. They have been a great bunch of folks who provide an invaluable need for our Valley communities.

I have found that there are those in our community who still lack an understanding of the need for the person with a disability to be empowered…to have an ease of access to services; to be able to live independently in enjoying the same life as those not so impaired to the best of their abilities. I often note in parking lots, in those areas set aside as Handicapped Parking Only (everyone should recognized that international sign now days); people parking there without the proper placard or license plate.

As handicapped parking is extremely limited, it is a shame when our citizenry (or foreign visitors) without the proper permission utilize these parking slots. Every time this is done it means that a person with disability is denied of their rights. As a person with a disability myself, with limited mobility, I have very often had to drive around a lot and wait for a handicapped parking space to open up, or a space closer to the building.

On many occasions, observing someone without a placard or plate parked in a handicapped parking area, I have brought it to the attention of the security guards, store managers, and police department; who most of the time respond appropriately, but sometimes not ( I have even had responses like, “What difference does it make?”, “That’s none of my concern,” etc.).

It is everyone’s concern when discrimination occurs, whether it be based on race/ethnicity, sex , age, or having a disability; and taking a handicapped parking space when not authorized is discrimination my friends. I would that you readers out there would always be aware of this, notify the proper personnel when you see it, and pass the info on to your family members and friends. Persons with true disabilities most often do not stand up and speak out; they do not want a “hand out” or be granted special favors beyond the assistance they truly need…they just want to be able to participate in and enjoy the same freedoms that the general population have.

It is the responsibility of all of us to insure individuals with a disability be granted access to services, no matter what services or where it is located. Until next time, Stay Healthy My Friends!