Twenty years after Congress enacted landmark civil rights legislation called the Americans with Disabilities Act, we are a different nation, one with more ramps and elevators and sensibilities.
The act, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, changed the way we build buildings, plan parking lots and lay out intersections, slowly morphing urban infrastructure into more friendly terrain.
The changes are ubiquitous.
The ADA redesigned airplanes and rental cars, cruise ships and theme parks and stadiums. In 20 years, it has altered the size and shape of bathroom stalls, the way the doors swing, the grab bars along the walls. We have more handicapped parking spaces, detectable warning mats at intersections and playground equipment for children who use wheelchairs.
Cities, sometimes at huge costs, have retrofit public buildings with push-button doors and public buses with wheelchair lifts. Even the Star-Spangled Banner at Tampa Bay Rays games now comes with closed-captioning.
These subtle shifts in our environment are so universal we hardly notice them. Because as our buildings have adapted, so have we.
"The attitudes of Americans toward people with disabilities have changed," said Ben Ritter, the 67-year-old government relations director for the Florida Suncoast Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America in Tampa, who watched from the White House Rose Garden when Bush signed the act.
In 1989, it was legal under federal law for a movie theater to deny admission to a paralyzed person or for a laundry to deny service to someone deaf or blind.
The act unified groups around a core set of values and launched a movement with parallels to the earlier civil rights struggles of African-Americans. It wasn't uncommon before 1990 for disabled people to have to use a back door to get into a restaurant, or to be cloistered together in movie theaters or at sporting events.
"People came together," said Jack Humburg, director of ADA services and housing development for Boley Centers. "They came together for equal employment, public sector access and private sector access as well."
Activists wrote letters and made phone calls to noncompliant businesses. When that didn't work they pursued claims in court.
A legally blind woman from Clearwater, Harriet Afeld, won a court battle in 1994 that forced investment giant Smith Barney to issue her monthly statement in large print.
A deaf actor settled out of court her 1994 lawsuit against Burger King Corp. for refusing to serve her at a drive-through window. That's when Miami-based Burger King began testing electronic ordering devices.
A man in a wheelchair won a lawsuit against a San Diego International House of Pancakes franchise in the mid 1990s. His chair wouldn't fit through the bathroom door, so he had to crawl.
To the disdain of many business owners, some local activists began filing lawsuits against any business they could find that wasn't compliant. Johnny Long, who died in 2006, filed suits against more than 200 businesses, including Busch Gardens, Morton Plant Hospital, the Sirata Beach Resort and United Way of Tampa Bay.
Some took to referring to the ADA as "Attorneys' Dreams Answered." Lawyers carved niches into a new market, testing the limits of the law and making scratch-your-head headlines.
An Alabama waitress with a heart condition and panic disorder unsuccessfully sued the restaurant that fired her for suffering a "meltdown" during busy meal time. A 360-pound Tennessee woman settled out of court with the movie theater chain that denied her access to Jurassic Park.
Some disabled groups said the suits trivialized the law.
"We call them 'drive-by lawsuits,' " said Ritter, who noted that 90 percent of the complaints he gets are about inadequate parking. "They don't help."
Municipalities have also objected to some rigid requirements. Clearwater recently decided to renovate a two-story lifeguard stand on Clearwater Beach. Government regulations require that it be made handicapped-accessible even though the only people who use the building are lifeguards.
"If you can't go down stairs, you can't be a lifeguard," Clearwater parks and recreation director Kevin Dunbar told the Times. "But common sense doesn't really play into it."
Dunbar also pointed out that, years ago, the city was ordered to install a wheelchair lift for the dugout at Bright House Field, spring training home for the Philadelphia Phillies. It cost $18,000 and hasn't been used, he said.
Humburg said it's yet another battle in the movement to stop discrimination, 20 years after ADA.
"The implication is: How silly," said Humburg. "But they're spending almost half a million dollars on the building and it's a public building. You can't build a courthouse without providing access. Or a school. Or in this case, a lifeguard facility."
Information from the Associated Press and Times archives was used in this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8650.