“You can’t fight City Hall” is one of the oldest sayings around, often based on a boulevard of broken things such as long-neglected potholes in crosswalks, uprooted sidewalks and other barriers to wheelchair mobility.
Local government might seem like an impenetrable maze, but you don’t have to fight City Hall. You can work in a collaborative, non-combative way to get local officials on your side. Call this the Squeaky Wheel Guide — a roadmap to getting your city to remove barriers and promote progressive legislation for people with disabilities.
Knowledge is power, and it’s easier than ever to power up. Most local governments have a place on their websites where you can type in your address and find out who represents you. While visiting your municipality’s website, check out how the city is organized — is it run by a strong mayor or a city manager? Who are the key department heads?
A municipal government’s transition and barrier removal plans spell out its goals for accessibility. These documents are public record — meaning you have a right to see and review them. When the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted, the Department of Justice required public entities that employ more than 50 people to have an ADA coordinator, an ADA policy and a grievance policy. While too few cities have full-time coordinators plus appropriate staff, most at least identify an employee acting in that capacity.
“Unlike any other civil rights laws, the ADA not only requires that an entity not treat people differently because of their disability,” says Matthew W. Dietz. “It also requires these entities to affirmatively modify their premises or policies and procedures to ensure that the person with a disability has an equal opportunity to get the same benefit as a nondisabled person.” Dietz is a founding member and litigation director of Disability Independence Group, a Miami-based nonprofit that promotes recruitment, education and employment of people with disabilities.
“When a complaint or request for accommodation is received, then it will go to a person who hopefully has knowledge of the ADA,” says Dietz. “If the person with a disability disagrees with the finding, then they will have a procedure to go through.”
Although Karen Tamley is now the president and CEO of Access Living, until recently she was the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities in Chicago. She says it pays to know how to interface with your local government.
“Know what’s available to you. Many cities have 311, a line you can call to state your issue. You get a case number so you can track it,’’ says Tamley, a wheelchair user. Many cities have a smart phone app that you can use to capture your issue in pictures and send it in to be addressed.
It’s easy to document things with a camera phone. Take a picture and caption it to precisely explain the issue you are addressing. This will help city inspectors and repair workers to pinpoint the location and impress elected and appointed officials that you meet with.
Connect and Get Involved
Once you’ve done your basic research, it’s time to hit the ground rolling: meet your representatives, get on committees, get involved. Tamley says nothing beats connecting personally with the elected representative for your part of the city. “They know your neighborhood, so they know who to contact,” she says. “We work with aldermen all the time — their staff contacts the proper city office and works to solve a problem that their constituent is having.”
Call your representative or councilperson’s office and make an appointment. Don’t be surprised if after a brief meet-and-greet with the elected official, you are handed off to a staff member. This is not a bad thing. That staffer is the one who will contact city employees on your behalf. Also, they know what part of the city budget can be used to fix your problem or fund your initiative. Constituent services is their job — they will keep the pressure on the city manager or department head to ensure your issue progresses toward resolution.
Tamley strongly encourages interested advocates to find time to attend public hearings and town halls. Be persistent, but polite. Build up a rapport.
“I’m amazed at how many people don’t show up to a city budget meeting or a transit authority board meeting,” she says. “You have a captive audience and you have all the staff that can resolve your problem or support your policy initiative right there — be a part of it.”
If you want to take your involvement to the next level, getting on a board or committee can lead to even more dramatic results. The more active you become with local government, the more influence you will have over creating positive change.
“People don’t understand disability basics. A board or committee can educate city officials by having outside professionals come in and give presentations,” says Alex Ghenis, a policy and research specialist at the World Institute on Disability. “If more people engage, it helps amplify the disability voice.”
Some progressive cities, such as Seattle, strive to have a person with a disability on every board. If your city has never had a wheelchair user on any boards, it probably has never thought in terms of universal design, inclusive mobility and the budgeting to make those things happen.
Ghenis, a quad, has served on a city board that is influencing changes in the building code to increase accessibility, such as requiring wide doorways, units with roll-in showers and two elevators instead of one in the basic requirements for new housing.
“Sitting on an advisory board is more effective, in a lot of ways, than doing protests. It can be proactive instead of reactive,” he says. “Getting involved can be the key to drafting good policies. Because you are appointed to the board by a commissioner or mayor, you have more access to staff — to get things done.”
Send the Right Message to the Right Person
Craft a complaint that gets results. Accuracy, brevity and conciseness matters. Yes, maybe there are thousands of curb ramps that need repair in your city — but address the high impact ones first. State what your issue is and what result you’re seeking. If you are vague, unclear and angry, you will not be setting the stage for allowing officials to help you. State that you will be checking back on progress toward resolving your issue. Resist the temptation to copy every city official under the sun. Doing that is likely to get you dismissed as a crack pot.
Kim Harrison has learned the value of a narrow and focused ask in her years advocating for disability rights in Georgia. Harrison, who has transverse myelitis, focused her energy on broken, obstructed sidewalks and curb ramps. She built a coalition that held a “Roll a Mile in our Wheels” event.
“We got rental wheelchairs and got city officials to go a mile on both sides of a street. They were embarrassed by the conditions,” she says. “They were scared because they were so close to traffic without any buffer or protection for pedestrians. They saw how little it took for a wheel to get stuck in a sidewalk crack or a bumpy/poorly constructed curb cut.”
Harrison is quick to point out that while this built awareness, it did not give the officials the true experience of navigating endless barriers while using a wheelchair for mobility. “We said if you get stuck, you can get up and move around — we can’t. One guy got so tired of getting stuck that he got out and started pushing his wheelchair. `Get back in,’ we said, `we don’t have that option and you need to experience this.’”
Local and state transportation officials are holding a meeting in early 2020 to follow up with a plan, budget and timeline for fixing sidewalks.
Like Harrison, Arizona advocate Gina Schuh has found success by tailoring her approach and whom she targets. “A few years ago, I was so sick of access aisle abuse, I asked the legislators in Arizona to make it illegal to park in an access aisle whether you have a permit or not,” she says. “I hosted an event for people to meet with their legislators. The law was approved and we worked with cities to amend their parking and traffic codes to comply. Getting involved is how we get change.”
Later, she worked with the Phoenix Police Department to address disability parking abuse.
“We did a video to train police on why they must issue citations,” she says, noting that many cops are reluctant to ticket. “We launched a whole campaign about the problems that people with disabilities face.”
Schuh’s experiences reinforce that city employees often have not had a personal experience with disability, so they are ignorant of needs and uncomfortable asking about them.
Stay Cool. Keep Fighting.
Stay gentle, firm, professional and positive in your communications. If you truly are getting stonewalled, consider going to the media. Have documentation of your problem and all your communications with your city. Social media is another way to get your message out. Tweet at the city, its officials and your council member. Make a factual, not an emotional, Facebook post. Share photos of the barrier in your way on Instagram. Do a blog post on why cities must be inclusive and how ignoring an accessibility issue is discriminatory.
“Pick your battles. It will have a higher impact,” says Bonnie Lewkowicz, the manager of Access Northern California, a nonprofit that advocates for access to nature and outdoor recreation. She recommends a cool-headed, focused approach. “I could write 20 letters a day, but I’m not going to. I’m going to focus on parks and outdoor entities and do trainings and awareness so staff can better serve their patrons with disabilities.”
Lewkowicz says her style is to be direct and not overly confrontational, even when a progressive city is building projects that are negatively impacting access.
“The bike coalition is very strong,” she says of her hometown, Berkeley. “A lot of street redesigns have been improving the situation for cyclists but at the same time taking away access for people with disabilities.”
Previously, cars and vans parked next to the curb, where a ramp-equipped van could safely deploy onto the sidewalk. To protect cyclists from traffic, the new design moves the parking spaces away from the curb and paints a bike lane between the sidewalk and on-street parking. This means that a van ramp deploys perilously into the pathway of fast-moving bicycles. Also, because the ramp is at street level instead of curb level, wheelchair users have no way of directly accessing the sidewalk and must roll many car lengths — hoping there are no obstructions — to make it to an intersection where the curb ramps are.
Lewkowicz says a few wheelchair users drove around, showing bike coalition members how the design impeded lift-equipped vans. She is still searching for common ground and working to get the city’s bike-pedestrian point person to create a design solution.
Tamley points to a similar battle in her city to show that persistence can pay off. In Chicago, Tamley says the input of the disability community ensured the city heavily regulated micromobility (dockless rental bikes and scooters) in a pilot program. While many cities have suffered from discarded scooters dangerously blocking sidewalks, curb ramps, crosswalks, bus stops and more, Chicago minimized the impact to wheelchair users and pedestrians by tightening rules on locations of use and corralling the devices.
You can fight City Hall, but not with fighting words. No matter how long your issue has been neglected, nor how much your frustration has built up, you will not influence decision makers by shaming, scolding or cursing them.
When your accessibility issue is resolved, don’t forget to praise all those involved with addressing your issue. Formal, written thank you notes may be rare as VCRs these days, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a few moments to send an email thanking all those involved. A brief email of praise to a city manager, department head or city commissioner goes a long way.
“We write a generic follow-up letter before we have a meeting, so it is ready to go right after the event. We say, ‘Here’s our number, reach out to us any time.’ It’s important to show that we appreciate their taking the time to get informed about our issue,” says Harrison.
A concise, positive, embracing note can break that harmful myth that people with disabilities are only complainers. And the next time you have an issue, your key city contacts will think of you as an active citizen with valuable insights into universal design.
Tips From a Pro
United Spinal Association’s Accessibility Services program provides consulting services devoted to making the built environment accessible to people with disabilities. Vice President Dominic Marinelli has worked as a certified accessibility specialist for over 30 years and knows a thing or two about how to effect change.
“A great example of working directly with City Hall is to establish a relationship with the local code enforcement office,” he says. “While building officials and inspectors are not responsible for enforcing the barrier removal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines — for buildings designed for first occupancy after Jan. 26, 1993 — they are required to enforce the accessibility requirements of the local building code and existing building code.”
Since the early 2000s, building codes throughout the country have mirrored the accessibility requirements of the ADA for both newly constructed and existing buildings, Marinelli explains.
New construction regs require that buildings provide accessible parking and paths from that parking to accessible entrances. Interior building features must include corridors and doors that provide adequate clear width, lowered counters, tables with knee space, drinking fountains with lowered spouts and bathrooms with accessible fixtures.
Existing buildings are required to dedicate 20% of alteration costs to providing an accessible path of travel to renovated spaces within the building. If an existing building changes use, such as a historic warehouse being converted to apartments, the building must comply with new construction requirements.
Unfortunately, many architects, planners and city officials are either not aware of ADA compliance rules for adaptive re-use, or they are lax in enforcing them. That’s why it’s important to forge and maintain good contacts — so previously inaccessible buildings become accessible via renovation.
“Many people with disabilities develop a relationship with their Department of Buildings to ensure that accessibility is emphasized in new and existing projects and to discuss ongoing projects,” Marinelli advises.
• Advocacy in Action: A Toolkit for the Rolling Revolution, a comprehensive guide to getting involved and using your voice for change from United Spinal Association.
• Find the Center for Independent Living in your area: ilru.org/projects/cil-net/cil-center-and-association-directory
• The US DOJ website on ADA Titles II (state and local government) and III (public accommodations, aka private businesses): ADA.gov
• Accessibility Services, a program of United Spinal Association, assists property owners and designers as they navigate the myriad accessibility requirements that apply to a facility at the state and federal levels: accessibility-services.com/about-accessibility-services.