U.S. Marine Corps Veteran and PVA Michigan Chapter President Mike Harris is a passionate advocate fighting to make our communities accessible to all.
Mike’s injury occurred in 1986, when he was in an automobile accident at the age of 29.
This was four years before the passage of the ADA, giving him the perspective of life both with and without a wheelchair. “I realize what life was like without a disability, and I realize what life is like with a disability. I’m able to have perspective.”
Before becoming President of the Michigan chapter in 2018, Mike served as his chapter’s Government Relations Director from 1996-2007, and then was Executive Director until 2015. He has been attending PVA’s Advocacy Seminar since 1996.
How were you introduced to PVA?
Before my injury, I had never heard of PVA. But it’s funny – my father had donated over the years.
Did you father serve?
Yes, he served during WWII. He didn’t have a spinal cord injury, but he supported PVA because he believed in the mission. I had never heard of PVA and it wasn’t until 1990 when he told me about them, and I said ‘Wow.” I went in, and I joined PVA because I thought maybe I might be entitled to some benefits through the VA. One thing led to another. I’d get the newsletter and go to the membership meetings, and they saw my file, indicating I’d like to work for a nonprofit organization once I got my degree in accounting. I was in school at the time, and agreed to serve on the board.
I ended up being the Government Relations Director. I thought I’d only do that for a year, to be honest, figuring I’d graduate and go into accounting; but I fell in love with the mission and stayed with PVA.
What spoke to you about government relations work?
To me, government relations is the most critical component of PVA. We [paralyzed Veterans] want to live life with a disability out in the communities we reside in.
What separates PVA from other veteran service organizations is our advocacy when it comes to civil rights issues such as the ADA and the Air Carrier Access Act and Fair Housing. We do so much, not only for our members, but for the disability community as a whole.
For example, Detroit had to re-do 80,000 curb cuts because we filed a lawsuit. They weren’t compliant. Our motivation was twofold: one was to get the work done correctly, and we wanted to use it as a learning tool to educate other communities.
Now, it’s so nice every time I go to Detroit for a baseball game and I see the curb cuts; PVA is responsible for that. And those curb cuts allow not only wheelchair access, but people riding a bike, or mothers with a stroller or things like that.
Tell me about some other successes you’ve had in Michigan.
Our chapter sued the University of Michigan because they weren’t in compliance with accessibility guidelines for stadiums. They were only going to put in seven wheelchair seats in their 100,000-seat football stadium. We tried to work with them prior, because we didn’t want to sue them. Our lawsuit resulted in 350 wheelchair seats, and we got the stadium to meet all the other accessibility requirements because the Justice Department intervened on our behalf.
We also brought up family bathrooms. Those are required under the ADA. I was hoping to get two or three, but they put in about 21 of them. We explained the value of it, not only for us, but for parents that have kids. Let’s say a father needs to take their son or daughter into the bathroom, now they can take them into the family restroom, or a spouse might have a disability and need access.
We were also able to review the drawings for the Detroit Riverwalk before they built it. PVA is well-known in the community because of our advocacy, so many times we’ll get calls on accessibility. And that’s really where you want to get to: where people think of you when issues pop up that are disability-related or accessibility-related.
And this work isn’t just happening in Michigan.
The beauty of the PVA chapters across the county is when major projects in the community are being built – like football, baseball, or hockey and basketball arenas – we work with them before they are built, as an advisory group. We get a cross section of disability groups that serve on the board and we’ve worked with them on the issues that impact our disability, and we try to personalize it, as well. I like to tell the architect, you can learn so much out of a book and what the codes are, and that’s fine, but when we can personalize the issue to you, you get a different perspective.
You are really passionate about educating businesses and the public on the ADA and accessibility.
Whenever we file a complaint with a business, we’ll educate them about what the issue is, what the violation is, and we’ll give them the provision within the act itself of what’s being violated.
I think the public has a lack of understanding. So I think when you can educate the public as a whole, most people are willing to do what’s right – they just don’t know what is required.
The ADA was a great achievement; but you feel like there is still more work to be done, correct?
The ADA has had a huge impact on my quality of life. It lets me access services in the community, but it still hasn’t been fully realized; there are still issues that need to be addressed. Change is not going to take place unless we are out there making it happen, because people aren’t going to do it on our behalf.
PVA and their membership is a really great force for change.
You have people in wheelchairs that could have just continued living on public assistance but they said ‘No, there’s more to life than that.’ And they try to be advocates in the communities that they live in, for positive change. It’s really a collective effort by everyone. We all see the value in what we do because we all benefit from it.
When I visit a community that has benefited from PVA’s advocacy, I take pride in the fact that it was PVA that made accessibility happen, and no one knows that. We have a great story to tell.