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A soft story

There's something "soft" about the story Small curb a big barrier for wheelchairs, strollers from the April 19, 2006 Westchester, NY Journal-News:

The curb is just 6 inches high, but it might as well be a cliff to William Ferrer. He can't climb it in his electric wheelchair. So on a recent trip to a local drugstore, the 77-year-old was forced to maneuver around parked cars and two-way traffic.


The Americans With Disabilities Act has helped those in wheelchairs gain access to municipal, recreational and commercial districts. Yet there are many outdated residential intersections in the Lower Hudson Valley that make it difficult for wheelchair users to commune with their neighbors. And bringing the thousands of intersections up to code can be a tricky endeavor, advocates for the disabled say.

"This is one of the most difficult things to get enforced under the ADA," said Melvyn Tanzman, executive director of Westchester Disabled on the Move, an advocacy organization. "It's a really hard thing to track down, and the task overwhelming."


"Unless you're in the field or work in the disabled community or you have a family or friend in a wheelchair, it isn't something you would necessarily think about. People just don't really think about it all the time," said Evan Latainer, director of the Westchester County Office of the Disabled.


Since I'm working on this issue right now locally, I can pinpoint one thing that's missing: authoritative guidance. People who design public streets and sidewalks refer to a slew of reference works, and each contains a negotiated "state of the art" that reflects their last publication date. Why didn't the reporter ask the public works people what they plan to do?

The Access Board's standards on curb ramp placement and design have changed since the ADA's passage. The (we hope) definitive answers to such thorny issues as "how do we ensure functional access to streets whose grade is steeper than any curb ramp," are addressed in the Public Rights-of-Way which seems to be stuck in limbo between the notice of rule-making and actually implementing the rule.

Given the funding squeeze on local infrastructure the public works people are desperate to minimize cost: taking the position, "Well, the final word isn't out yet, so we don't have to do anything" is easy in the absence of specific guidelines. While the Supreme Court's decision in the Sacramento case bolsters our insistence that access is required, it's challenging to develop the background to argue with civil engineers on whether ADAAG or ABA or 504 or State law obtains in curb ramp design.

Of course, community pressure -- from one person or a group -- is crucial. Current law can support a "reasonable accommodation" strategy in the meantime, when the inaccessible path prevents us from accessing municipal services (like public transit, meal sites, libraries, voting, city hall). Not that paratransit is a sufficient response, but a case can certainly be made for paratransit access until municipalities enable access via the sidewalk network. Given that a score of paratransit rides probably costs more than retrofitting a curb ramp, this tactic could shift a municipality into looking at accessible sidewalks.

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