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Crash kills Washington County motorcyclist

Debra Erdley
| Friday, July 4, 2014, 10:24 p.m.

I cheered when the Americans with Disabilities Act became law 25 years ago.

Cheering for the underdog has always been part of my DNA. And it seemed only right that a society as rich as ours should try to level the playing field for people who had to scale some pretty high bars just to get to the starting point.

I never thought I would need those protections until last fall when my 62-year- old- husband—my cycling companion, my dancing partner, my hiking and skiing buddy and the father of our two sons—collapsed at a party and couldn't get up.

We spent a weekend in the hospital as doctors ordered test after test. They had no answers and soon he was able to get up and walk up and down the halls.

That was the start of a long and terrifying journey.

We spent months shuttling between doctors and tests, as Vern's condition worsened.

Within weeks he was struggling to get around with a cane. Shortly after New Years, as we were making our way to a play at Heinz Hall, he collapsed on a sidewalk.

People rushed in to help, confirming my opinion that Western Pennsylvania is packed with good people.

We made it to the play.

Then he moved on to a walker. Suddenly the multi-level home where we'd raised our sons became his winter prison. Ultimately, we were able to purchase a great ranch house with a fabulous sixties vibe and no steps.

By April, Vern was in a wheelchair.

Finally, the experts at Penn State Hershey Medical Center ALS Center gave us a diagnosis: this was ALS, the disease that felled Lou Gehrig and Morrie Schwartz, the wise professor memorialized in “Tuesdays with Morrie.”

Although it is highly individual, ALS is fatal. There is no cure. It typically kills within 3 to 5 years as it renders muscle after muscle useless.

Friends and family have been wonderful.

Although some people might call this a death sentence, I think of it as a life sentence: the love of my life has been sentenced to participate as fully as possible in the lives of those we love for as long as he can.

That's where the ADA comes into our story.

Those curb cuts and handicapped accessible facilities are there for us. They make it possible for Vern to participate in public life.

But 25 years after it became the law of the land, the ADA is still a mystery to some people, including the young woman who checked us into a Charleston hotel for a family wedding last month.

She confirmed that I had indeed booked a handicapped accessible room two months earlier. She insisted that was what she gave us, despite the fact that no wheel chair would ever go into the bathroom in that room.

When I asked what she was going to do for us, she was adamant that there was nothing she could do. She wasn't going to call any other hotels, or check out any other rooms because they were booked solid.

There was simply no room in the inn. Finally a young man at the next register walked over and said, “Let me check something. I think we have a room that will work.”

Moments later, after 45 minutes of fruitless discussion with his colleague, he took us to our room. It was indeed handicapped accessible.

The following day, when my sister asked for a private meeting with the manager, the man was apologetic. Yes, he knew about the ADA. And yes, I had booked a wheelchair handicapped accessible room. There was no excuse for what had happened.

He agreed to comp us for one night.

He confided that Michael, the young man who helped us, had been tagged for management training.

In the meantime, I hope he will work with his other employees to explain just what the ADA is and how important it is.

It's personal now.

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