My name is Maritza Valentin, and I am going to share with you how I became involved with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
It was 1986, and I was a sophomore in high school … it was Senior cut day. That was the year that changed my view and sparked my passion for seeing beyond a person in a wheelchair — my life changed overnight.
A classmate was the host of a party at her parents’ house. I had to ask for permission from my parents and was told I couldn’t go, especially since her parents were out of town. So instead, I got on the school bus and looked around. It was empty because everyone decided to skip the day.
In the afternoon an announcement came over the intercom to pray for Kathy (not her real name), because there was an accident at her house, and she was in the hospital. In the 1980s, we didn’t have cell phones, so I didn’t know what had happened until I got home and received a call from another student who was at the party. Kathy was on her trampoline and fell. Everyone that was there heard the hard fall.
Unfortunately, her neck hit the edge of the trampoline and she was unable to move at all. A couple of weeks went by and that is when we were informed that she was paralyzed from her neck down. Later that year, Kathy was chosen to be our school speaker. We all stood outside to welcome her as her mother drove up in a 1980s family cargo van. I walked over to greet her mom and saw Kathy in a wheelchair, with pillows around her chair so she wouldn’t tip over. Her mother placed plywood as a ramp to get her off the van. I knew then that something was not right and, even though I was young, it was something that impacted my life forever.
In the early 1990s, I started working in the evenings for a paratransit company that was working on pushing ADA laws with many other companies. I was operating on the manufacturing side behind a sewing machine, to supply wheelchair securements for the industry, which would help our ADA passengers to depend on mobility and offer them safe transportation. I knew in my heart that my experience with Kathy in high school had paved the way for my motivation in helping others.
Ten years later, I began to travel from state to state to train operators and trainers on the importance of sensitivity and respect when transporting people with disabilities. I remember inviting a client that was promoting the product to one of my training sessions at the Red Clay Consolidated Schools transportation department in Wilmington, Delaware. I chose a school for the training site rather than someplace else. I went through the certification class, but I made sure to use one of the district’s actual students instead of an actor or another trainer. The student was so excited because he was in the middle of the circle that we had created and asked him to participate.
He had Cerebral Palsy, his eyes were wide open, and he smiled. After the training, one of the trainers walked up to me with his eyes full of tears. He hugged me and thanked me for inviting him to the training class. He expressed how it changed him and that moving forward he would share that story with other school districts.
In the early 2000s, I started to participate frequently on national committees and organizations for mobility transportation. Many things were still unclear on how to efficiently transport people with disabilities. Two years later, I joined many special needs committees and helped create many of the state training materials and regulations used today in schools, for personal and public mobility. Around the same time, I became involved with school bus safety roadeos for both school buses and transit vehicles.
Watching the excitement of drivers compete in safety and mobility challenges at both the state and national level, proved to me once again that I desired to stay in the industry so I could continue to help.
From there on, my career has provided me numerous opportunities to work for wheelchair lift manufacturers, while simultaneously training operators and mechanics to understand the importance of maintaining and using a wheelchair lift. By this time, the wheelchair manufacturers were updating wheelchairs to be more versatile, safe and comfortable. Hence, making them more practical, since it was their way of moving around safely. As the chairs were modified, some became lighter for sport but much heavier for transport and mobility. I was part of a program that successfully created a wheelchair lift that will hold a 1,000-pound chair.
So, going back to the question of my passion for mobility: here I am 30 years in the industry, and I have come full circle. I am back at the company that introduced me to ADA mobility when I first started, and I still love it and enjoy it every day.