Reluctant places are being dragged to court to repair sidewalks for people with disabilities


From her dining room in Baltimore, Susan Goodlaxson can watch her neighbor across the street gardening. But while other neighbors pause to chat, Goodlaxson just looks out the window. She uses a wheelchair and there isn’t a single curb ramp in her block.

If the 66-year-old wanted to take part, she would have to jump down the 7½-inch curb in her wheelchair and risk a fall. The same goes when she wanted to drive over to the library, a drive that required driving on the street to avoid rampless curbs and broken sidewalks.

“I don’t feel like moving your wheelchair around town is asking too much,” she said.

The federal law supports them. Since 1990, the Americans With Disabilities Act has required government agencies to provide people with disabilities with access to programs and services used by their nondisabled peers. This includes sidewalks and curb ramps that allow safe crossing of the street.

This part of the law is widespread in Baltimore and many other communities in the United States.

“An awful lot [communities] either disregarded their obligations under the ADA or made them a top priority, ”noted Tom Stenson, attorney with Disability Rights Oregon, a nonprofit advocacy group. “There is a culture across America that does not take the needs of people with disabilities seriously.”

In Baltimore, according to the city, only 1.3% of curb ramps meet federal standards. In Oregon, about 9% of the corners managed by the state transportation division are compliant. San Jose, California counted 27,621 corners with faulty or non-existent curb ramps. Boston estimates that less than half of its curb ramps are compliant.

In recent years there has been a spate of class action lawsuits, including one filed against Baltimore in June, with Goodlaxson among the plaintiffs.

Cities from Baltimore to Seattle have been sued for not making sidewalks accessible to people with disabilities and wheelchair users. There has been widespread non-compliance with this part of the Americans With Disabilities Act. (Rosem Morton / for KHN)

In Baltimore, according to the city, only 1.3% of curb ramps meet federal standards. There isn’t a single curb ramp on Susan Goodlaxson’s block. (Rosem Morton / for KHN)

Philadelphia was sued in 2019 for the condition of its sidewalks. Chicago was sued that same year for failing to install audible pedestrian signals more than a decade after laying a suit over curb ramps. Atlanta was sued in 2018. A survey there found that only 20% of the sidewalks were in sufficient condition to be used by wheelchair users or scooters, and around 30% had curb ramps. Seattle settled a class action lawsuit in 2017. San Francisco and Long Beach, California, were sued in 2014 for making their sidewalks more wheelchair accessible.

The City of New York and its Transportation Department have repeatedly faced major ADA lawsuits, some alleging the same lack of accessibility for people with disabilities that was meant to be addressed in a lawsuit filed in the 1990s and later settled.

Los Angeles settled what is believed to be the largest of these lawsuits in 2015. The problems with sidewalks and curb ramps were so widespread that it was estimated to cost the city $ 1.4 billion and take 30 years to comply. In the years leading up to the lawsuit, the city did not allocate money to sidewalk repairs, ADA, or otherwise, even while paying out millions of damages claims.

In total, hundreds of jurisdictions have faced legal proceedings or entered into settlement agreements after failing to meet ADA requirements for pedestrians and public transit users.

There is a culture across America of not taking the needs of people with disabilities seriously.

Tom Stenson, an Oregon disability attorney

The sheer number of non-compliant sidewalks, curb ramps, pedestrian signals and subway stations illustrate the challenges facing people with disabilities. It also puts cities in legal and financial straits, with the average curb ramp costing between $ 9,000 and $ 19,000. If the court needs a jurisdiction to build thousands of them to catch up, it can put a strain on budgets.

The ADA and Rehabilitation Act of 1973 resulted in significant changes that improved access and accommodation for people with disabilities. The ADA understands that people with disabilities have the same right to pedestrian infrastructure as everyone else.

There are requirements for the width, slope, and other specifications of a curb ramp. Even a 1 inch lip can be too tall for a wheelchair user to navigate. A slope that is a few degrees too steep can tip someone to the ground. Crumbled, potholed or otherwise clogged sidewalks – for example with electricity pylons – force wheelchair users to take a dangerous ride on the street.

Nobody expected the ADA to fix all of these issues right away. According to the law, new walkways must be built for accessibility. With regard to existing sidewalks, a federal appeals court ruled in 1993 that curb ramps must be installed or re-graded if the road is changed – for example if it is re-asphalted.

However, in 1999 it was clear that many jurisdictions were ignoring the law. The US Department of Justice began enforcement efforts and has signed settlement agreements with more than 200 non-compliant jurisdictions covering all states since 2000.

Nevertheless, compliance still lags behind.

Officials in Baltimore, New York and Los Angeles declined to comment on the article. Tony Snyder, manager of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s ADA program, said isolated sources of funding, strict regulations, and costs have been some of the hurdles over the years.

“It wasn’t that ODOT didn’t value accessibility,” he said. While less than 10% of the state’s ramps meet the standards, many non-compliant ramps are still “usable”.

Kelly Lynch, assistant director and general counsel for the The Montana League of Cities and Towns, an association representing 127 local governments, agreed that the costs can add up. She has worked to help other coal miners – and, she hopes, officials in other jurisdictions across the country through the National League of Cities – find a path to full access, even if the steps are gradual.

Some changes, including educating road staff about the rules, are relatively straightforward. A bigger problem, however, is a widespread lack of spending on the country’s infrastructure. “Our streets are falling apart and so are our sidewalks,” Lynch said.

Susan Goodlaxson of Baltimore says she has called the city repeatedly asking for curb cuts and sidewalk repairs. She remembers that a crew came to look at the sidewalks, but nothing happened.(Rosem Morton / for KHN)

In August, the Senate rejected a motion by Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) To a $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill that would have state and local agencies outlined how they would use federal funds to make people accessible with disabilities and for people with disabilities to improve underserved communities. Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) Called Duckworth’s amendment “politically correct signaling of virtues” and argued that transportation companies do not need this type of federal oversight.

In addition to the more general infrastructure issues, many officials don’t fully understand the ADA or its requirements, Lynch believes. And as the mother of a disabled son, there is another important factor: “People still discriminate against people with disabilities.”

Regarding Baltimore, Goodlaxson said she made repeated calls to the city asking for curb cuts and sidewalk repairs. She remembers that a crew came to look at the sidewalks – and then nothing happened. Advocacy groups attempted to negotiate with city officials in hopes of getting Baltimore’s infrastructure in line on a schedule. When that didn’t work, they filed a lawsuit.

Most of these types of ADA cases begin similarly, with negotiations well in advance of legal proceedings. Some jurisdictions settled quickly and worked hard on improvements. Other cases run less smoothly. The Oregon Transportation Department, which is also sued, is in danger of missing its construction deadlines as part of the settlement. Some repairs had to be repeated because they still did not meet ADA requirements.

Sometimes cities try to kick cases out of the court by referring to the Appeals Court’s 1993 decision, arguing that there is no evidence that the road has been changed since then, so the ADA requirements have not come into effect. In an ongoing lawsuit in New York, the New York City Transportation Department argues that wheelchair users, for example, cannot use three-quarters of the city’s subways because there are no elevators, but can instead take the bus.

Some jurisdictions are fighting bitterly. Los Angeles spent five years in court before agreeing to a settlement. Linda Dardarian, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, said cities are not fully recognizing accessibility to sidewalks and curb ramps as a civil right. “They just saw it as another maintenance obligation, [like] Maintain street trees. “

When the case was settled, the judge ordered Los Angeles to pay nearly $ 12 million to cover the other side’s legal fees and expenses, on top of the estimated $ 1.4 billion it will cost to comply with the regulations.

In these settlements, repairs often take a decade or more, and the city or town typically has to pay for surveys, measurements, and disability counseling to ensure compliance.

From the plaintiffs’ point of view, the challenge with these lawsuits is that there is no giant hammer to hold governments accountable.

“If you don’t build the ramps, you have to build the ramps,” said Stenson of Disability Rights Oregon, who represented a plaintiff in the Oregon Department of Transportation’s lawsuit.

For those who can easily get around the city, the problem can be invisible.

Goodlaxson didn’t realize the problem until she started using a wheelchair five years ago after surgery for a brain tumor. She remembers seeing people in wheelchairs on the street and thought, “It doesn’t look safe. But I didn’t think about it anymore. “

Now she realizes that “people are scared, but they can’t help it.”

Visiting the library for Susan Goodlaxson from Baltimore, who uses an electric wheelchair, would require driving on the street to avoid rampless curbs and broken sidewalks. “I don’t think moving your wheelchair around town is asking too much,” says Goodlaxson.(Rosem Morton / for KHN)



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