BOISE – Kelly Buckland remembers what it was like to live as a person with a disability in Idaho long before the Americans with Disabilities Act passed.
A lifelong Idahoan whose dive into the Snake River at age 16 broke his neck and left him in a wheelchair, Buckland recalled relying on his classmates at Rigby High School to carry him up the steps into the school and back down at the end of classes.
“There was no parking,” he said. “There were not any accessible bathrooms – you had to go before you left home.”
And Buckland said he was routinely discriminated against for being disabled.
“I was kicked out of movie theaters, restaurants and bars, just because they didn’t want you there,” he said. “A lot of people don’t think that sort of stuff happened.”
He recalled being turned away from a former Boise landmark restaurant, the Top of the Hoff, because he and his wife were told that his wheelchair was “in the way of the waiters – they couldn’t easily get past my chair. They asked us to leave, they wouldn’t serve us.”
That couldn’t happen today under the ADA, which is marking its 25th anniversary. Buckland was the keynote speaker Friday at Idaho’s state commemoration of the anniversary, which featured hundreds of people stretching a yellow ribbon around the state Capitol, speeches, information booths, demonstrations of accessible voting machines and more.
“We have much to celebrate, and it’s fitting that we would celebrate by holding hands around the Idaho state Capitol building,” Buckland told the crowd.
As he and other speakers noted, Idaho recently reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice that requires the state to add $400,000 in upgrades to its newly renovated state Capitol to bring it into compliance with the ADA. Those improvements include accessible seating in the House and Senate galleries and changes in ramps and signage.
U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy Olson recalled a tour of the Capitol with other justice officials and Idaho disability activist Dana Gover – who toured in her wheelchair – that drove home for Olson the obstacles to getting around the building that’s sometimes called the “people’s house.”
“Now, truly, the Idaho Statehouse will belong to all of us,” Olson said.
But Buckland cautioned, “It’s clear that that would not have happened if somebody hadn’t spoken up. And it’s important that people speak up when they see their rights being violated, and that includes all of you.”
He filed the complaint that launched the U.S. Justice Department investigation and led to the settlement when he learned that his and other advocates’ advice to the state about making the Capitol ADA-compliant during its renovation was ignored.
Buckland is a national advocate for disability rights, heading the National Council on Independent Living. He headed the Center for Independent Living in Boise for six years and the State Independent Living Network for 14 years before moving to the nation’s capitol to head the national group.
In the early 2000s, Buckland led the effort to change Idaho’s child custody, child protection, divorce and parental rights termination laws to prevent parents from losing their kids solely because the parent has a disability. Idaho was a leader on that, but Buckland said 37 states still have no such protections; he’s been working with the U.S. Department of Justice and Sen. Mike Crapo on ways to expand those protections nationwide.
“Disabilities should never be used as a reason to remove or diminish our rights as parents,” he told the crowd.
During the event, crowds of people, some in wheelchairs, some conversing in sign language, ringed the Capitol, browsed the booths, listened to speakers and enjoyed live music and food trucks.
Some wore T-shirts with slogans, including, “Disability rights are civil rights” and “Keep calm, I’m an autism mom.” A sign said, “Not being able to speak is not the same as not having anything to say.”
Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney read a proclamation from Gov. Butch Otter, which noted that Idaho amended its Idaho Human Rights Act on July 1, 1988, to ban discrimination on the basis of disability – two years before the passage of the ADA in 1990.
“We will fulfill the promise of the ADA,” Denney said, saying it’s intended to ensure that people with disabilities can “participate as active, productive and independent citizens in Idaho.”
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