Sidewalk Wars

Photo by Tom Olin

This wasn’t the way I wanted to get out of jury duty.

Like many people who have received jury summonses in the mail, I find it more of a bothersome chore than a civic duty. At the same time, though, I wasn’t planning to play the gimp card to get out of it. I’m a part of my community, same as everyone else, and using a wheelchair doesn’t exempt me from my civic responsibilities.

Being a wheelchair user, however, does mean that I have to do some reconnaissance. Since the parking structure for the courthouse lies several blocks from the courthouse itself, I needed to check out the path of travel. I drove the route in my van, used the “street level” function in Google Maps to get a closer look at the sidewalks and curb cuts — basically, I did everything I could to make sure I could get from the parking lot to the courthouse without being stranded, kissing the concrete or being hit by a car.

Then the morning came to report. I arrived downtown at 7:15 — half an hour before my reporting time — parked my van and headed for the courthouse, confident in my ability to make it from point A to point B. It was only a couple of blocks, I thought. What could go wrong?

The first obstacle confronted me right away. As soon as I left the parking structure, the sidewalk tilted sharply as it passed over a storm drain. Navigating the steep cross-slope — with my threadbare tires, just after a heavy rain — without falling down the storm drain and being flushed out to sea was a challenge, but not insurmountable.

Many curb cuts are so poorly maintained that weeds grow in the cracks.

Many curb cuts are so poorly maintained that weeds grow in the cracks.

Obstacle number two was tougher. The first curb cut I came to was much, much steeper than it had looked from the van during my scouting drive. At the bottom of it there was a high lip marking the end of the curb, then a gutter sloping just as steeply in the other direction. I knew from personal experience that if I tried going down it forward, my front wheels would catch in the trough at the bottom, my chair would turn into a catapult, and I would wind up lying in the street with two broken legs. So I backed down instead — and got stuck. Fortunately, a pedestrian happened by just at that moment and extricated me.

I kept going, made it to within one block of the courthouse — and that was when I met the obstacle that finally defeated me. This curb cut wasn’t too steep, and would have been a breeze — if there didn’t happen to be a water-filled pothole right at the bottom of it. So I elected to go backwards again. It wasn’t until I reached the pothole that I realized it was a lot deeper than it looked. One rear wheel slipped into it, and there I stayed, stuck, leaning to one side and with my front end in the air until, once again, a kindly passerby came to my aid.

When I finally reached the jury lounge — at 8:15, a full hour after parking my van — red-faced, sweating and jittery, I explained to the clerk that I couldn’t possibly serve because if I had to make this trek to the courthouse every day, I would most likely break my neck. I was excused.

So much for civic duty.

From Sledgehammers to Lawsuits
In 1966 legal scholar and disability rights pioneer Jacobus tenBroek described “the right to be abroad in the land” as one of the fundamentals of human existence. For wheelchair users, an unobstructed path of travel — free of unramped curbs, broken concrete or blocked sidewalks — is essential to exercising that right.

Ideally, we should be able to maneuver our chairs through our cities and neighborhoods with as much ease as the pedestrians with whom we share the sidewalk. But of course, the real world is more difficult than that. If you’re like me, you’ve memorized every possible trouble spot in the paths you traverse daily — every dangerous curb cut, every busy driveway, every spot where tree roots have torn up the concrete.  More than once, you’ve undoubtedly embarked on your way to a new destination — a restaurant, a court appointment, a job interview — only to turn around and go home because there’s no way of getting there in your chair.

Understandably, therefore, curb cuts and barrier-free sidewalks have been a focus of the disability movement from the very beginning. In 1970 the birthplace of the Independent Living Movement, Berkeley, Calif., became the first city in the United States to ramp its intersections for wheelchairs. Other cities followed suit throughout the next two decades. In 1988 a group of L.A.-based disability activists made national headlines by taking sledgehammers to the Hollywood Walk of Fame in protest of the lack of curb cuts along that world-famous stretch of sidewalk. Ten years later, Kelly Dillery became a cause celebre for the disability movement when she was repeatedly harassed by police in her hometown of Sandusky, Ohio, for using her wheelchair in the street because the sidewalks weren’t ramped. (For bringing attention to the issue, Dillery was named the 1999 New Mobility Person of the Year.)

Nowadays — nearly 20 years since accessible sidewalks became a requirement under Title II of the ADA — people with disabilities can use their legal power rather than brute force to make sure their cities provide accessible sidewalks. Across the country, more and more of us are doing just that.

“Ten years ago, when I walked down the street, I did not see a lot of wheelchair users who could get around independently the way they do today,” says Teresa Favuzzi, executive director of the California Foundation of Independent Living Centers. “The reason we see our community out in the streets every day is because there are curb cuts.”

Forcing Access
It was in CFILC’s home base of Sacra-mento, Calif., that the most recent round of sidewalk wars was begun. In 2003, after a suit brought by Berkeley-based Disability Rights Advocates, the city agreed to set aside 20 percent of its transportation funds toward improving sidewalks, crosswalks and curb cuts. The case, Barden v. Sacramento, is considered a landmark for reinforcing the responsibilities of local governments under the ADA.

In 1988, activists took hammers to the curbs of Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

In 1988, activists took hammers to the curbs of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

“The longterm impact for accessibility — beyond curb cuts — is ongoing,” Favuzzi says. In complying with the terms of the Barden settlement, the city of Sacramento has hired an ADA coordinator as well as a staff person responsible solely for improvements in “public rights-of-way” such as sidewalks. “Barden essentially forced the city to focus on access,” Favuzzi says.

The years since Barden have seen similar legal actions in other cities, with similar outcomes. In 2007 the city of Chicago, in one of the largest ADA settlements since the act was passed in 1990, agreed to spend $50 million on repairs and replacement of existing curb cuts and another $18 million per year on installation of new curb cuts — “that’s an immense number of curb ramps,” says attorney Tim Woerthwein, who represented the plaintiffs in the suit. Other cities, including San Antonio, Detroit and Corpus Christi, Texas, have also had suits brought against them to force compliance with access laws.

Meanwhile, back in California, Disability Rights Advocates is representing two groups — Californians for Disability Rights and the California Council of the Blind — in a suit against the state transportation agency, Caltrans, which is responsible for sidewalks along state highways. “When Caltrans doesn’t provide access as required under both state law and the ADA, that leaves many people with disabilities in unsafe situations,” says Laura Williams of CDR. “Caltrans is required to provide access for every Californian, not just hikers and bikers.”

Carrots and Sticks
A group of dedicated disability activists and a skilled legal team can force a city to agree to comply with the law, but it also takes a lot of organizing at the grassroots level to make sure compliance actually happens.

“I can’t do it all,” says Woerthwein. As part of Chicago’s 2007 settlement, residents can call 311 — the city’s phone number for non-emergency services — to report problems with sidewalks or curb cuts. The success of that approach, however, depends on raising the awareness of the disability community. “The only way we can determine whether there’s a problem is if people with disabilities call,” Woerthwein says. “We need to get that information out to people.”

In Topeka, Kan., subdivisions constructed in the last 25 years have been required to have accessible sidewalks, and much recent work has been done to bring those sidewalks into ADA compliance. Yet accessibility remains a problem in many parts of the city, largely because sidewalks in Topeka are the responsibility of homeowners rather than the city government. Moreover, many city neighborhoods don’t have sidewalks at all.

Ami Hyten, assistant executive director of the Topeka Independent Living Resource Center, believes in going the route of community organizing to bring about improved access before resorting to legal action — a carrot-and-stick approach that she says has shown good results. By bringing city agencies and neighborhood associations together with disability activists, TILRC helps everyone “start to connect the dots,” she says. For example, if the gas company tears up a street to lay in a new gas line, they have already been made aware of accessibility issues, “so when they fix the street, they go ahead and put a curb cut in.” in Topeka, associations representing low- to moderate-income neighborhoods are eligible for grants for housing and infrastructure improvements. “By meeting with those neighborhood associations, we get them on board as well,” Hyten says.

No More Excuses
It’s worth remembering that accessible sidewalks aren’t merely an issue of convenience; for the increasing mobile population of wheelchair users they can be a matter of life and death. In 2001 Elias Gutierrez — a Fresno, Calif., disability activist who had long campaigned against the lack of curb cuts in his city – was struck and killed by a car while unavoidably riding his wheelchair in the street. His has not been the only such tragedy. “I have a file an inch thick,” Hyten says, “of stories from around the country about people who have been injured or killed because of a lack of accessible sidewalks and curb cuts.”

Photo by Tom Olin

Still, as each generation of wheelchair users becomes more mobile and independent, more and more cities are responding to their demands for better access. Although it’s coming nearly two decades late, this is an area in which the ADA has begun to have a real impact.

In my own town of San Diego, the evidence is unmistakable. The improvements are hit and miss — a shiny new curb cut on one corner often sits opposite a ramp-from-hell across the street — but I’ve definitely seen the results in my neighborhood. According to the city, more than 500 new curb cuts were installed in the past two years, and $50 million over the next five years has been committed to improving the accessibility of city facilities. Is the city just trying to avoid being sued, or are they motivated by a desire to do the right thing?

“It’s not about avoiding litigation. It’s about ensuring equal access,” Bill Harris, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, told the San Diego Union-Tribune recently. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter why equal access is finally starting to happen.

The next time I get a jury summons, though, I may no longer have an excuse not to do my civic duty.

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