National Disability Employment Awareness Month
Seattle Municipal Archives Feature
Jeanette Williams championed rights for women, people of color and the disabled. Although the Washington State Legislature passed laws in 1967 and in 1971 (RCW 70.92 and RCW 7092A) requiring public buildings and public accommodations be built with barrier-free design to accommodate the disabled, the regulations were rarely enforced.
Stating that the disabled are “the forgotten people,” Williams succeeded in getting legislation passed requiring wheel chair ramps on all street improvement projects in 1972.
Williams requested in February 1973 that access to City Hall be improved by reserving two parking spaces, making restrooms accessible, and installing a payphone within 40 inches above the floor as part of her effort to remove architectural barriers to the disabled from public buildings. “Although the City has hired several handicapped people, there are still tremendous physical barriers to their employment,” she stated.
In October 1973, Williams helped organize a morning for Councilmembers to spend in a wheel chair as part of “Employ the Handicapped Week,” known as Sensitivity Day ’73. Councilmembers gained insight into barriers for the disabled: John Miller couldn’t get around a table, Wayne Larkin couldn’t maneuver his wheelchair out of a crowded room, and backing into an elevator was problematic for Jeanette Williams.
At Williams’ request in 1974, the Building Department agreed to support an ordinance amending the Building code to provide for barrier-free design. Williams also sponsored amendments to the Seattle Fair Employment Practices Ordinance to include protections against discrimination against the disabled. The following year, Williams spearheaded an effort to provide greater accessibility to polling places.
Despite these efforts, Williams received letters of complaint. In 1984 a landlord wrote in to say: “Now I see you have a new idea even crazier than those of the past, to wit, making us landlords put in ramps, remodel kitchens and doors and bathrooms for the benefit of ethereal tenants who may solidify sometime into actual rent-paying bodies. Have you remodeled a bathroom lately? Destroyed a landscape with a ramp? If you people are so crazy about the handicapped why not spend your own money – don’t lay it on us landlords to do it. I’m only waiting for you to name something else after the sainted M. L. King that will cost a bundle.”
The ease with which the disabled can live and work in Seattle is due in large part to the work of Jeanette Williams.