Reluctant communities are taken to court to repair sidewalks for people with disabilities

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

From her dining room in Baltimore, Susan Goodlaxson can see her neighbor gardening across the street. But as other neighbors stop to chat, Goodlaxson just stares out the window. She uses a wheelchair and there is not a single curb ramp on her block.

If the 66-year-old wanted to join her, she would have to jump her wheelchair into the 7½-inch sidewalk and risk a fall. Ditto if she wanted to drive to the library, a ride that would require driving down the street to avoid sidewalks without ramps and broken sidewalks.

“I don’t feel like it’s too much to ask to be able to move your wheelchair around town,” she said.

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Federal law supports it. Since 1990, the Americans With Disabilities Act has required government entities to provide people with disabilities access to programs and services that benefit their non-disabled peers. This includes sidewalks and ramps that allow you to cross the street safely.

In Baltimore and many other communities in the United States, there has been widespread non-compliance with this part of the law.

“A lot of (communities) have either ignored their obligations under the ADA or made it the last priority,” noted Tom Stenson, an attorney for Disability Rights Oregon, a nonprofit rights group. lucrative. “There is a culture all over America of not taking the needs of people with disabilities seriously. “

In Baltimore, only 1.3% of ramps meet federal standards, according to the city’s own figures. In Oregon, about 9% of turns maintained by the state Department of Transportation are compliant. San Jose, Calif., Had 27,621 turns with faulty or no curb ramps. Boston estimates that less than half of its ramps are compliant.

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

Philadelphia was sued in 2019 for the condition of its sidewalks. Chicago was sued the same year for failing to install pedestrian audible signals, more than a decade after settling a ramp lawsuit. In 2018, Atlanta was sued. A survey determined that only 20% of sidewalks were in sufficient condition for use by people in wheelchairs or motorized scooters and about 30% had access ramps. Seattle settled a class action lawsuit in 2017. San Francisco and Long Beach, Calif., Were sued in 2014 for making their sidewalks more wheelchair accessible.

New York City and its transportation authority have faced major lawsuits from the ADA on several occasions, with some alleging the same lack of access for people with disabilities that was supposed to be addressed in a lawsuit filed in years. 1990 and settled later.

Los Angeles settled what is believed to be the largest of these lawsuits in 2015. Its sidewalk and ramp issues were so widespread that the city estimated it would cost $ 1.4 billion and that it would take 30 years to become compliant. In the years leading up to the lawsuit, the city was not allocating money for sidewalk repairs, for ADA or whatever, even paying millions of dollars in injury claims.

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

The large number of sidewalks, ramps, pedestrian signals and non-compliant metro stations illustrate the challenges faced by people with disabilities. It also leaves cities in a difficult legal and financial situation, with the average ramp costing between $ 9,000 and $ 19,000. When the court asks a court to build thousands to catch up, it can strain budgets.

The ADA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 brought about significant changes that improved access and accommodations for people with disabilities. The ADA is clear that people with disabilities have the same right to pedestrian infrastructure as anyone else.

There are requirements covering the width, slope and other specifications of a curb ramp. Even a 1 inch lip can be too high for a wheelchair user to navigate. A slope that is too steep a few degrees can cause someone to tip over to the ground. Crumbling sidewalks, filled with potholes, or otherwise obstructed – with utility poles, for example – force wheelchair users to take to the streets for a dangerous journey.

No one expected the ADA to fix all of these issues immediately. By law, new sidewalks must be built for accessibility. With respect to existing sidewalks, a federal appeals court ruled in 1993 that ramps should be installed or upgraded when the road is altered, such as when it is repaved.

Yet by 1999 it was clear that many jurisdictions were ignoring the law. The US Department of Justice has begun enforcement efforts, reaching settlement agreements with more than 200 non-compliant jurisdictions representing each state since 2000.

Yet compliance is still lagging behind.

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

“It’s not that ODOT doesn’t value accessibility,” he said. While less than 10% of the state’s ramps meet standards, he said, many non-compliant ramps are “serviceable” nonetheless.

Kelly Lynch, deputy director and general counsel for the Montana League of Cities and Towns, an association that represents 127 city governments, agreed the costs can add up. She has strived to help her compatriots in Montan – and, she hopes, officials in other jurisdictions across the country through the National League of Cities – to find the path to full accessibility, even if the stages are gradual.

Some changes, including educating road crews on the rules, are relatively straightforward. But a bigger problem is the country’s widespread lack of infrastructure spending. “Our streets are collapsing, and so are our sidewalks,” Lynch said.

In August, the Senate rejected an amendment by Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., To a $ 1,000 billion infrastructure bill that would have required state and local entities to describe how they would use federal dollars. to improve accessibility for people with disabilities and for underserved communities. Senator Pat Toomey, R-Pa., Called Duckworth’s amendment “signaling of politically correct virtue” and argued that transit agencies do not need that kind of federal oversight.

In addition to the broader infrastructure issues, many officials do not fully understand the ADA or its requirements, Lynch believes. And as the mother of a disabled son, she also said there was another important factor at play: “People continue to discriminate against people with disabilities. “

As for Baltimore, Goodlaxson said she has repeatedly called the city to request sidewalk cuts and sidewalk repairs. She remembers a crew coming to watch the sidewalks – and then nothing happens. Advocacy organizations have tried to negotiate with city officials, hoping to bring Baltimore’s infrastructure into line on a schedule. When it didn’t work, they filed a complaint.

Most of these types of ADA cases start out the same way, with negotiations long before legal proceedings. Some jurisdictions have moved quickly and have worked hard to make improvements. Other cases go less well. The Oregon Department of Transportation, which has also been sued, is at risk of missing construction deadlines under the regulation. Some repairs had to be redone as they still did not meet ADA requirements.

Sometimes cities try to get cases thrown out by invoking the 1993 appeals court decision and arguing that there is no evidence that the road has been altered since then, so that ADA requirements have not been applied. In New York City, the transportation authority argues in an ongoing lawsuit that even though wheelchair users can’t take, say, three-quarters of the city’s subways because there are no elevator, they can take the bus instead.

Some jurisdictions are bitterly fighting. Los Angeles spent five years in court before agreeing to a settlement. Linda Dardarian, one of the plaintiff’s lawyers, said cities do not fully recognize the accessibility of sidewalks and ramps as a civil right. “They saw it as another maintenance obligation, (like) grooming the trees on the street.”

When the case was settled, the judge ordered Los Angeles to pay nearly $ 12 million to cover legal fees and the other party’s fees, in addition to the estimated $ 1.4 billion he it will cost to get into compliance.

Under these regulations, repairs often span a decade or more, and the city or town typically has to pay for disability surveys, measurements, and consultants to ensure compliance.

From the plaintiffs’ perspective, the challenge with these lawsuits is that there is not a huge hammer to hold governments to account.

“If you don’t build the ramps, the penalty is you have to build the ramps,” said Stenson of Disability Rights Oregon, who provided legal representation to a plaintiff in the Oregon Department of Transportation lawsuit.

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

Goodlaxson didn’t see 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, thinking, “That doesn’t sound safe. But I didn’t think about it anymore.

Now she realizes that “people are terrified, but they can’t do it any other way.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and surveys, KHN is one of the three main operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.

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