Watch for frequent updates!

Yale 62

My Work with the ADA
By Jim Lewis

(Ed. Note: We learned about a month back that Jim did some work with the ADA, so Y62 Communications Team member Bill Weber asked him about it. What follows is his response.)

Abraham Lincoln’s Home in Springfield, IL, shown here not compliant with ADA

Thank you, Bill, for the chance to discuss ADA work. I believe that it matters.

In 1991, Congress passed and President George H. W. Bush was glad to sign the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act. This legislation changed the existing expectations for the many millions of people with physical and mental limitations, and brought them more fully into our communities, to benefit the individuals as well as the communities.

How would this be implemented? Good question. Someone had to do something.

After the passage of the ADA, the United States Department of Justice invited Assistant United States Attorneys – like me – to one-day regional ADA training. Jaci, a paralegal in our office, came with me. We learned about the law and checked out an ADA-compliant hotel. Then, when we got back to Springfield, Illinois, we got together with Pete Roberts and Starla Norris of the Springfield Center for Independent Living, the local advocacy organization, and asked what bothered them the most. Answer: the Illinois State Capitol.

So we went to work. I learned that the Capitol ignored previous ADA complaints, even from the Illinois Attorney General. I arranged a series of meetings with the Architect of the Capitol, together with representatives of the Capitol’s occupants–the House, Senate, Secretary of State and Governor. After we made some initial progress on basic issues, I arranged for an ADA-trained architect from the Department of Justice to come for a week, to survey and document each instance of non-compliance. I gave her lengthy report to the Illinois officials, listed the significant violations, and reached an agreement with the officials that all significant violations would be promptly corrected–they were–and that all remaining violations would be corrected in future renovations.

In the course of working with the Architect and representatives from the Illinois State Capitol, I developed two persuasive questions: “Would you like to follow the law?” and “Would you like the public to have access to this building?” Whenever I asked these questions, the discussion turned quickly and smoothly to compliance and solutions. After this experience, I learned to ask these same two questions each time that we approached someone about their ADA compliance. And people consistently answered, as expected, “Yes, we intend to comply.”

Over the next decade, we worked on many ADA problems. We followed the same approach–a carefully-documented report from the ADA-trained architect from the Department–for the Illinois State Fairgrounds, the University of Illinois at Springfield, a local high school and several restaurants. Same approach, same result: compliance. Jaci and I learned how to do our own documentation, with photographs and citations to the relevant regulations. We checked our own building, and it passed in every detail, then we examined local government buildings as well as many more restaurants. We expanded into communities outside Springfield, particularly in response to complaints. We obtained compliance agreements plus money damages for complainants, such as the woman who was put out of a restaurant because she had a service dog; students who were impeded in college or even forced out, because of disability; and the mother who was deaf who came with her pre-teen child to an emergency room after a serious accident, and was not able to communicate about medical care because the hospital would not provide a sign language interpreter–despite her repeated request. We also worked to make the state courts more accessible for attorneys and spectators who were deaf, to make the bus system more accessible for all, and to ensure that the police force responded appropriately to people with mental limitations and challenges. We did it all.

What did I learn? I met resilient people–and some difficult people–and I learned again to appreciate how others experience the world. We helped people gain access into the community. We worked with officials, business owners, restaurant owners and others, to get problems solved. Jaci and I, together with Pete and Starla, took a law that appeared on paper, and we turned it into a force for inclusion within the community. The law worked in the real world, if we put in the effort–and that’s an important lesson.

What is the present problem that I’m working on? I was recently approached by a friend who observed a family struggling to help a person in a wheelchair up onto the board sidewalk at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in downtown Springfield. To do this, the family had to lift the heavy wheelchair up from the pebbled streets over a six-inch wooden barrier, acting as a curb. This barrier, unlike modern streets with curb cuts, had no area cut out for easy passage. There’s a picture with this article; many of us wouldn’t notice the curb, but people in wheelchairs must notice every curb and barrier; and that’s the point of the ADA, that it’s time to notice – and correct – barriers that hold people back.

This Lincoln Home Site is two blocks from my former office, and also has several other federal offices. I know the area well, and I notice barriers. Frankly, I should have said and done something about curb cuts in these wooden barriers, when I was enforcing the ADA. So I recently enlisted my friends Pete and Starla from the Center for Independent Living to look carefully at the Site, and they concluded that it was not compliant. Then I found them an ADA attorney, and the attorney found the Site’s own report acknowledging multiple barrier violations. I am working with Pete, Starla and the attorney to get it right.

Lincoln Home, shown ADA compliant. Note ramps at red arrows.

Please let me close this article with a question: “If I approached Mr. Lincoln and I explained that his sidewalk and neighborhood did not follow the law and did not allow the public to have the access that they expect, how would he have responded?” I believe that this conversation would have gone well and ended well. If you live in Springfield long enough, you begin to imagine conversations with Mr. Lincoln, and these imaginary conversations tend to go well and end well.

Postscript: In 2010, I became the United States Attorney; I hired an Assistant United States Attorney who continues this ADA work. In 2016, I retired. In 2022, the Abraham Lincoln Association gave me the Lincoln the Lawyer Award – an extraordinary honor.


We invite your comments below.

2 comments to My Work with the ADA

  • Jay Hatch

    Jim, Congratulations on your work and work with others to rmove these barriers! While at graduate school I had a focus on cross-cultural education so out of curiosity I rousted myself to attend an 8 AM presentation by a fellow grad student I didn’t know on Living Cross-Culturally At UMAss. To my surprise, and ever after apprieciation and “awokeness”, I was made aware of the barriers she face on campus as someone confined to a wheelchair mobility. I wish I could say that I went out and fixed things, but I did support her efforts whenever she asked and have been alert to pointing out to others those I see and avoiding creating similar problems in the years since. Jay

  • Cory Christopher T.

    Bravo. The spirit of Lincoln still inspires. My grandmother sssembled a small collection of Lincolniana (c. 20 items, later donated to an appropriate museum, remembered by others in the
    family I’m now going to ask to recall. Such giants are good to keep in mind.