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Polaneczky: Disabled superhero opens doors for people like him

Michael Anderson has lots of unofficial titles: Sixers fan. Political junkie. Digital-media geek. Thanks to his successful lawsuit against the Franklin Institute and its unexpected aftermath, Anderson's newest honorific is an official one:

Michael Anderson has lots of unofficial titles: Sixers fan. Political junkie. Digital-media geek.

Thanks to his successful lawsuit against the Franklin Institute and its unexpected aftermath, Anderson's newest honorific is an official one:

Trailblazer for disability rights. And, man, does he love it.

"It feels wonderful," says Anderson, 34. "I'm a pioneer of the disability movement!"

Because of him, more disabled people in the Delaware Valley are now able to visit a growing list of museums, sports venues, amusement parks and music palaces without having to pay twice what the able-bodied pay.

Word of his victory needs to go viral so that more disabled people can use it to leverage greater participation in society.

Anderson didn't set out to be a super hero. All he wanted was to visit the Franklin Institute - one of his favorite places in the city - without having to also pay an admission fee for the personal-care attendant he needs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Anderson has cerebral palsy and lives in a group home in Merion Station with two other disabled young men. He uses an electric wheelchair and needs help with eating, dressing, toileting, and bathing. He also needs assistance with manual dexterity, safety and physical mobility, including transfer to and from bed and wheelchair direction.

Without his government-funded personal-care assistant (or PCA), he'd be unable to visit the Franklin Institute - or any venue, for that matter.

At the Institute, however, his PCA was regarded as his "guest" and Anderson was charged accordingly. But the PCA was no more Anderson's "guest" than his own wheelchair was.

Anderson filed a federal lawsuit in 2013 alleging that the Institute violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. By charging him a fee for the PCA he can't function without, the suit alleged, the Franklin Institute had discriminated against him.

The museum countered that waiving PCA fees would throw the institution into ruin, leading to budget cuts, layoffs and the elimination of services. No wonder the museum spent 32 months fighting the suit in federal court before it finally landed in the hands of U.S. District Judge Gerald A. McHugh last spring.

But the museum couldn't support its dire financial prediction.

How many of the institute's 760,000-plus annual visitors were disabled, the judge asked? The institute didn't know.

How many PCAs were admitted? The Institute wasn't sure about that, either.

In May, McHugh ordered the Franklin Institute to stop double-charging disabled patrons. In a column I wrote about the decision, museum spokeswoman Stefanie Santo said the museum disagreed with the court and vowed to "explore all of our options."

That's legal-speak for threatening an appeal. But then a crazy thing happened.

The story made the front page of the Daily News. The cover image depicted Founding Father Benjamin Franklin in a wheelchair, alongside the headline "Benja-MEAN: Franklin Institute's Disabled Admissions Policy Revolting."

(God, I love our graphics people and headline writers.)

And the museum dropped its threat to appeal within about, oh, five minutes.

Santo didn't get back to me this week with a reason for the institute's change of heart. But Anderson believes the Daily News' focus was pivotal in the museum's decision to cry uncle.

He also believes it put other venues on notice that they could be in violation of the ADA if they, too, double-charged the disabled.

And this is where Anderson's quest for justice shows how big a difference one person can make.

Since the judge's ruling, he and his attorney, veteran disability-rights expert Steve Gold, have approached 58 local venues to ask if they would formally create or amend admissions policies for the disabled to comply with McHugh's decision. They also asked for the policies be put on the venue websites.

"The response has been fantastic," says Gold. "Thirty-three have already complied. More are in the process of updating their websites. Most of them had no idea this was even an issue. But once we explained it, they got right away the hardship of charging a disabled person twice."

Some organizations, like Temple University Athletics, already had such a policy in place but it was not communicated well to the public or staff.

"We may have had a few situations with making PCAs pay for tickets," says Scott Walcoff, Temple's senior associate athletic director. "We have now implemented steps to ensure that our customer service is top notch and that we honor these requests moving forward. We are happy to support this initiative 100 percent."

Ditto for the Please Touch Museum.

"We always had a policy but it wasn't as transparent as it needs to be," says museum president and CEO Patricia Wellenbach. Now it's on the website, where disabled patrons can easily see it.

The visibility is crucial, says Dee Coccia, president and CEO of Vision for Equality, the co-plaintiff in Anderson's suit. Most disabled people live below the poverty line, so a trip to a museum, sports venue or concert is a rare pleasure. Paying double the cost of admission puts the outing even further out of reach.

"We're so excited about the court decision," says Coccia. "It removes another obstacle to participation in the world."

As one disability rights activist once told me, "The aim of the Americans with Disabilities Act was broader than just, 'Can I get through a door?' It was, 'Can I get into society?' "

Judge McHugh's decision and the actions of many organizations in response to it are giving disabled people one more way to be visible in a world that too often doesn't see them.

The word needs to spread beyond Philly. So please feel free to share this story liberally.

The world deserves to hear what one young, dogged "pioneer of the disability movement" has done for them.