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When the phone rang in Michael Arrigo’s house, a talking caller ID read out the phone number.
“It’s Dennis,” Arrigo said. “Tell him I’ll call him back.”
“People call here, because they know I’ll help them find services, and I’m not afraid to give out my phone number.”
In the summer of 1978, right after Arrigo graduated from high school, he lost his eyesight. He suffered from a rare condition called Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, a condition which causes the optic nerve to deteriorate. Arrigo lost most of his central vision. Suddenly, he couldn’t drive, couldn’t read small print, and couldn’t see over long distances.
“It’s the opposite of tunnel vision,” Arrigo said. “I had to learn how to navigate and live like a blind person.”
This week marked the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which guarantees protections against discrimination for people with disabilities, and access to public buildings and transportation.
“The ADA is probably the most important piece of legislation pertaining to people with disabilities that’s ever been written,” Arrigo said. “It’s hard to believe it’s only been 20 years since it was signed.”
Now 52 years old, Arrigo has lived in West Hollywood for most of his adult life. He received a degree from California State University, Northridge in TV and Radio production, and then worked for a radio station, and then for the Arsenio Hall Show.
In the mid-‘90s, however, after Arrigo’s eyesight deteriorated further, he began to concentrate on advocacy work. In 1999, he began serving on the City of West Hollywood’s Disability Advisory Board, and in 2007 received the Board’s individual award.
“I remember being told I couldn’t drive,” Arrigo said. “I still miss driving to this day. With mobility comes independence. For people with disabilities to be able to live independently, they need to be able to get around.”
Around his house, Arrigo navigates remarkably well. His hand shakes a little, from of his Parkinson’s Disease, which he developed as a result of 15 years on antiretroviral drugs, to treat HIV. But he led his dog, Jasper, from the living room, through the kitchen, and onto the back patio.
He said to get around, he counts his steps, and keeps his house very organized. Then he laughed. “There’s nothing worse than a disorganized blind person.”
Outside his home, however, it is more complicated. Before the ADA, there was no requirement that sidewalks include curb cuts to allow wheelchair access — people in wheelchairs had to remain in the street and find a driveway to get back up onto the sidewalk.
Arrigo said making access to public transportation for people with disabilities is his primary goal. In addition to his work with the West Hollywood Disability Advisory Board, he also works with the Metro Accessibility Advisory Committee.
“Public transit is the most important issue I’m involved with right now,” Arrigo said. “Before the ADA, it was much more challenging. I remember in the old days, when bus drivers had to get out of their seats and go let the stairs down on the back for wheelchair access. With the new bus system, the audio announces each stop. That’s an accommodation that everyone uses, not just the blind. We’re working to make sure there is access for people with disabilities on the Westside subway extension, and the high speed rail from San Diego to San Francisco as well.”
Arrigo said he can now get around the city free, or at greatly discounted rates, on public transportation. Other issues, however, persist for disabled people. For instance, of the 186 countries that use paper currency, the United States is the only country whose currency does not have features designed for the blind.
The American Council of the Blind recently won a lawsuit against the United States Department of the Treasury, which will have to update its currency. Arrigo said the new bills will probably have slits in the corners to signify different values, though it’s unclear when they will be introduced.
In the meantime, though, when he goes out, Arrigo has to carry around a device that reads the bill and tells him how much it’s worth.
“It’s important to everyone to be financially secure,” he said. “But it’s frustrating to carry around this big bulky thing. I often just ask my friends to read me the bills, but I’ve made silly mistakes at restaurants and left the wrong tip. You have to have a sense of humor and laugh about those problems. If we didn’t laugh, where would we be?”
In the past year, however, Arrigo has had little to laugh about. Last summer, his boyfriend of 14 years died of leukemia. Arrigo still lives in the same house he lived in with his boyfriend, and his friend, Andy, has moved in to help him take care of the place.
Arrigo walked over to a shelf and picked up a photograph that showed him with his boyfriend and several other friends.
“I’m the only one in this picture who’s still alive,” he said. “Losing my boyfriend was probably the worst thing I’ve ever experienced.”
It speaks volumes about the progress of people with disabilities that Arrigo names the loss of his partner, not the loss of his sight, as the worst event of his life.
“I have two nephews who also lost their vision to the same hereditary disorder,” Arrigo said. “I’m so proud of one of them. He was going to Ohio State to play football, and was hoping to play professionally. When he lost his sight, he sat home for a few months, not doing anything, so depressed. But now he’s doing great working for Bank of America, and he’s getting married this year.”
At this point, Arrigo said, there is no reason people with disabilities can’t live whatever kind of life they choose.
“There’s nothing anyone can’t do,” he said. “I’m lucky, I haven’t ever been discriminated against. I can’t drive, that’s a fact, but that’s about it. And every once in a while, I’ll go with a friend to an empty parking lot, and he’ll let me sit with him in the driver’s seat and drive his truck.”
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