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Accessibility: The Questions I’m Learning to Ask

By Tracy Waller, Esq., MPH

On July 26, 2023, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) turns 33. The ADA was intended to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in areas including employment, transportation, housing, and public accommodations. While the ADA and other discrimination laws exist to protect people with disabilities (PWD) from discrimination, the reality is that PWD must grapple with the aftereffects of loopholes within the laws daily. Often from a shortage of governmental financial resources available or allocation, PWD still face a lack of accommodations regularly.

I identify as a person without a disability—someone whose access needs are most often met without accommodation. I have spent much of my life on the periphery of the ADA. Having gone through law school, I thought I understood what the ADA was. But there is one big problem: even though the ADA was intended to protect PWD, many places do not allocate the financial resources to create necessary accessibility to adhere to it. From big cities to small towns, financial resources are required to make sidewalks and streets accessible.[1]

On May 9, 2023, the Baltimore Banner published an article titled, “Baltimore isn’t accessible for people with disabilities. Fixing it would cost over $650 million.” Two years after a still pending suit was filed, Baltimore remains inaccessible. According to the Baltimore Banner, “[i]n 2021, city transportation officials wrote in an application for COVID-19 relief funds that more than 98% of public curb ramps and median treatments, 66% of sidewalk miles, 80% of driveway aprons, 16% of crosswalks and 33% of pedestrian signals citywide do not comply with Americans with Disabilities Act standards.” City officials estimated it would cost $657 million to make its pedestrian system ADA complaint. In addition, Transportation officials requested funding to upgrade transit corridors within only a 1/8 mile radius of transit stops and requested $45 million for upgrades within that radius—meaning that many of the transit corridors surrounding transit stops are not ADA accessible—preventing many PWD from accessing transportation. Therefore, even if the transportation authority is technically adhering to ADA requirements, PWD cannot access the transportation.

The Fell’s point neighborhood of Baltimore is covered in cobblestone streets. The cobblestones—combined with narrow sidewalks– make it a nightmare for wheelchair users. I can remember trying to push my daughter’s stroller through the neighborhood and being frustrated enough that I avoided the neighborhood entirely on walks. Many areas of the city are not ADA-complaint. And Baltimore is not the only city. An October 12, 2021 Time Magazine articlehighlights suits in cities including PhiladelphiaChicagoBoston, and Atlanta. Most suits end in large settlement agreements – after several years of litigation—with agreements to fund new construction of ADA-compliant sidewalks, ramps, and other structures. 

Prior to moving to Baltimore, I rarely thought about accessibility or curb cuts. And now, five years later, I have worked with people from around the country, many of whom I would call true change makers. I am continuously blown away by how brilliant and talented the people I meet are. But from the outside looking in, I keep thinking, “Why didn’t anyone tell me? Why isn’t this something that is a primary focus for everyone? Don’t we recognize the value lost by excluding people from places?”

And all the people I work with have been patient – as I have learned more. 

I helped to plan our staff holiday party this past year. The only requirement: an accessible restaurant. When I called the restaurant to ask about accessibility, the restaurant assured me it was—and that it was open—there weren’t any steps. But what does accessible[2] mean? I went ahead of time and checked it out to be sure. But I didn’t think to look at the bathroom. At the holiday party I found out the bathroom was not wide enough when my colleague’s power chair did not fit. I was horrified. My colleague was used to it. Used to it! I couldn’t imagine being used to not being able to use the bathroom. I was so embarrassed by my error.

I asked several people about their experiences with restaurants. One of my colleagues said, “Baltimore likes to put steps in the weirdest places. I could be in a restaurant. And there’s a step in the bathroom. And it happens all the time—because the building is old.” As a wheelchair user, he also explained his frustration with ramps having stairs at the end of them—getting to the bottom of them only to turn back around because the ramp is not actually wheelchair accessible.

Being able to safely use the bathroom is a fundamental aspect of human dignity. How can someone frequent a restaurant if they fear they might not be able to use the bathroom? But how can we not create more accessibility options? 

Another colleague told me that she recently visited a restaurant with a friend and the restaurant offered her a children’s menu. As a little person, she is all too familiar with discriminatory treatment. 

Calling ahead to restaurants and asking if the restaurant is accessible might not yield accurate answers. This makes visiting restaurants and traveling anywhere daunting. I cannot imagine navigating any of this at all, better yet, as gracefully as so many of my friends and colleagues have and continue to do.

It is important to recognize and celebrate the anniversary of 33 years since the ADA’s passage. However, we must also look toward and focus on what we can do to improve the execution of those it is intended to protect—and what it really means to provide accommodations.

[1] The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) issue the ADA Standards. The DOJ’s ADA Standards apply to all facilities except public transportation facilities, which are subject to DOT’s ADA Standards. The DOT’s ADA standards apply to facilities used by state and local governments to provide designated public transportation services, including bus stops and stations, and rail stations.  They include unique provisions concerning: the location of accessible routes, detectable warnings on curb ramps, bus boarding, and rail station platforms. Source: U.S. Access Board

[2] Accessibility is not a one size fits all term. It may be best to ask colleagues what their individual accessibility needs are. Other accessibility needs (or asks) might include reduced noise levels for colleagues that might have sensory needs or seating options away from others, so people do not get bumped by people walking by.

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