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By Daniel J. Vance

In 1974, then 21-year-old Michael Brennan and friends were sunning in the Florida Keys at Sombrero Beach, when Brennan casually ran off into the ocean to cool off. He dived into a wave, hit coral, and promptly broke his spine. He was instantly paralyzed.

“I couldn't move anything but a twitch of my shoulder,” said 57-year-old Brennan in a telephone interview from his Miami Beach home. “I didn't know if my friends had seen me. I was face down in the water and had my life run before my eyes. As I began taking the first gulp, I felt someone touch my shoulder.”

After spending three months in a hospital, and nearly five more in a rehabilitation institute, he began a new life as a quadriplegic using a power wheelchair and returning to college. He eventually earned a masters degree in vocational rehabilitation counseling.

He said, “It was a different world before the Americans with Disabilities Act (of 1990). I couldn't get into many public places. There weren't curb cuts or handicap parking. I couldn't find an accessible office building. In my own (work) office, I couldn't get into the bathrooms. Once my urine bag was filled, I had a choice of going into the parking garage between cars to empty it or use a two-liter soda bottle. It was a different world getting around, too. I was constantly having to ask for help. I couldn't be independent.”

In the '90s, he was on a Miami Beach commission to help bring about city compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. “They were dragging their feet,” he said. “At one meeting, I said, 'What does it take, a lawsuit to get you going?' Two city employees said it probably would.”

Brennan promptly sued the city over compliance, and later, separately, the famous Doral Hotel, for having inaccessible entrances and bathrooms.

Twenty years after the ADA signing, many restaurants, shopping malls, and office buildings still have inaccessible entrances and restrooms, he said. Today, Brennan owns a consulting company and has been used as an ADA expert in hundreds of cases. He drives a van, loves adapted swimming, and has been parasailing.

“Having a positive attitude is essential if you are going to make it as a person with a disability,” he said. “What you can and can't do is more in your mind rather than your body.”

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