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Making America Accessible

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Kevin McGuire remembers when wheelchair users could enter a building only through the service entrance, when those who were blind didn't go to the movies and those who were deaf could never enjoy the opera.

McGuire (CAS'83), CEO of McGuire Associates, a consulting firm specializing in compliance with federal and state disability laws, has made it his life's work to see that venues around the country are accessible to all. That includes him; McGuire is paralyzed from the waist down.

"I know accessibility laws probably better than anyone else in this country," says McGuire, sitting in his custom-made titanium wheelchair. "It's meaningful for me. When I have people come up to me because they had a great experience at a Broadway show or a baseball game, I feel good knowing that I had a big part in making their experience so great."

These days, when McGuire rolls through the halls of Gillette Stadium, in Foxborough, Mass., he greets workers by name, chatting them up easily as he glides by. He has worked with almost every major arena, stadium, ballpark, and concert venue in the country, and Gillette is one of his favorites. It was important to the Kraft Group, he says, that the stadium, built in 2002 and home to the New England Patriots, exceed all requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on physical or cognitive disability. The act requires, in part, that public venues provide van-accessible parking, assisted listening devices, and American Sign Language interpreters.

"We really relied on Kevin's expertise to make sure that this building could be experienced to the fullest extent possible by anyone who came in here," says Jonathan Kraft, president of the Kraft Group and the New England Patriots. "Kevin is very knowledgeable about the disabled community, and at the same time he understands businesses. He has a very elegant way of bringing those two worlds together."

McGuire, 50, was paralyzed at age 7, when he was hit by a drunk driver. At that time, he says, there were no laws to protect the disabled. When it was recommended that he attend a special needs school near his hometown of Newburgh, N.Y., McGuire declined. He is grateful for his "very persistent" parents, who fought for him to stay at his school and who pushed him to become self-reliant, teaching him to drive, do laundry, and other life skills.

During his freshman year at BU, McGuire was a staff assistant for U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy (Hon.'70), who years before had sent the young McGuire a note when he heard about his paralysis. "Kennedy had broken his back in a plane crash and eventually recovered," McGuire says of the late Massachusetts senator. "He wrote, 'If I can do it, you can do it.' That inspired me to go into politics."

And he did. At BU, McGuire was president of Shelton Hall sophomore and junior years, a President's Host junior and senior years, and president of the Student Union senior year.

He recalls that John Silber (Hon.'95), BU's president at the time, "did accessibility things at BU that no one else did. He was way ahead of the ballgame. He would challenge me, as student body president, and get in my face every day."

Despite Silber's efforts, says McGuire, BU wasn't perfect. He had to use the freight elevator at Warren Towers to get to the dining hall, because the passenger elevator didn't go up to all of the floors. Morse Auditorium was not accessible to the disabled until his senior year, so if he had to give a speech there, his friends would have to lift him and his wheelchair up to the stage.

After earning a bachelor's in history and political science at the College of Arts & Sciences, McGuire went on to Georgetown Law. He served on BU's Board of Trustees from 1982 to 1983 and was invited to speak at Senior Breakfast in 1990. "At BU," he told his audience, "I was introduced to life. I knew I would make it, that I would be OK."

In the late 1980s, working as an assistant district attorney in New York's Bronx County District Attorney's office, McGuire saw a newspaper ad inviting people in wheelchairs to try out for the Oliver Stone film Born on the Fourth of July, a true story of a paralyzed Vietnam veteran who becomes an antiwar activist.

McGuire landed the role of a disabled veteran who protests along with the lead character, played by Tom Cruise. He also taught Cruise how to use a wheelchair. Stone even incorporated one of McGuire's BU memories into the film: one night he was hanging out with friends at the Dugout. As McGuire held a beer with one hand and was furiously popping wheelies with the other, a crowd of people started to dance around him. In the end, he wiped out, slightly shaken but ego intact.

After the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, McGuire knew there would be a need for consultants, and he founded McGuire Associates in 1991. "I was lucky that my dad owned a small office building, so I had free rent," he says. "I just busted my backside in the beginning, and one job led to two, and it mushroomed, and I've done really well."

Since then, his company has worked for 200 clients, including most of the country's national sports teams, Live Nation concert venues, the White House Visitor Center, the Kodak Theatre, in Los Angeles, and Boston's Symphony Hall. He advises on a range of issues, including policy, procedures, and training of employees, and he works as a liaison with government agencies. McGuire recently launched a new company, AbleRoad, which makes how-to videos on a variety of topics, such as making a kitchen accessible and assisting the disabled with personal care and legal rights.

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At Gillette, McGuire oversaw full compliance with ADA regulations, which included fully accessible restrooms and concession stands, accessible telephones, and captioning and game description. He also helped train the stadium's 3,000 employees to assist disabled guests. He is especially proud, he says, of an assisted-listening device in the Hall at Patriot Place, an interactive museum of Patriots history. The device helps people who are either deaf or blind by describing a display or guiding to the next display.

McGuire says that while making public spaces accessible is the law, it's also smart business. The number of Americans over the age of 65 will jump from 40 million in 2010 to 70 million by 2030.

"The older this country gets, the more disabled it becomes," says McGuire. "There are people with these disposable incomes who aren't being reached out to. They're used to going to restaurants, going to the movies, and they don't want to stop going just because their vision is fading."

One thing that is not fading is McGuire's devotion to his cause. That remains fueled by memories, like one of a note received from a child who had seen a movie in a theater that McGuire had worked on. The child thanked McGuire for the movie, for the popcorn, and above all, for "treating him like a human being."

"I remember thinking, 'Oh my gosh. If this kid thinks what we're doing-which is what we should be doing-makes him human, then we still have a long way to go."

*Photos by Cydney Scott.

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