The Breakthrough Year
Disability involvement shapes the future face of Fresno, CA
by Ed Eames
2005 has been a breakthrough year for the disability community in Fresno, California. It started out with City Council passing a five year $45 million bond issue to support a program called No Neighborhood Left Behind. Among the infrastructure improvements central to the program were installation of curb cuts and sidewalks.
Other accomplishments during this banner year include having a voice in the crafting of a half-cent sales tax to finance county- wide transportation needs, involvement in developing minimum accessibility recommendations for new housing in the private sector and having a major say in changing the provider of paratransit service in the city.
These achievements have been the result of a long and continuing process of organization and persuasion. Changing the face of a city to make it more disability friendly is a process requiring time, persistence, political intervention and the efforts of many advocates. Frequently, those in policy making and implementing positions are not aware of our needs or existence.
The Two Committees
From the beginning of our efforts, my notion has been that by holding committee meetings at City Hall on a monthly basis, city employees and political leaders would be forced to deal with members of the disability community. Over the last 12 years staff members of the police, fire, planning, housing, disaster relief, facilities and public works departments have attended meetings of the Fresno ADA Advisory Council and dealt with our issues. Over the years, either a representative of the City Manager's office or the Department of Public Works has acted as liaison and arranged for the necessary city staff to attend meetings.
Since public transportation is a vital element in our move toward independence, employment, improved quality of life and participation in the larger society, the first group formed was the Fresno Area Express (FAX) ADA Advisory Committee. The manager of the paratransit service and the manager of FAX meet with this committee on a monthly basis. Disabled members of the committee have ample opportunity to air complaints and make recommendations about policy or provision of service.
In 1992 Fresno City Council chartered and gave official recognition to the FAX ADA Advisory Committee and one year later the Fresno ADA Advisory Council received similar status. Both groups meet on the third Friday of the month in a large conference room on the fourth floor of City Hall. Members of both committees have appeared before City Council when significant issues effecting disabled Fresnans have come up for a vote.
When my wife Toni and I moved from New York City to Fresno, California in 1987, we needed new careers. I had retired from my professorship at Baruch College and Toni left her job as rehabilitation counselor at Kings Park Psychiatric Center. Since guide dogs had initially brought us together, it seemed natural to carve our new careers around this focal point of our lives. In the early 1990s we extended our interest to include hearing and service dogs, began writing a monthly column for Dog World magazine celebrating the disabled person\assistance dog relationship, commenced lecturing at veterinary schools about what veterinarians need to know about assistance dogs and disabled clients and helped found the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, a cross- disability consumer advocacy organization. Coming into contact with physically disabled service dog partners, we began looking at our newly adopted hometown through the lenses of wheelchair users and found a mixed landscape.
There were some bright spots in this central California city, such as a fleet of lift equipped busses and a functioning paratransit system. Most buildings, including restaurants, entertainment facilities and stores, were accessible because the city, built at the base of the central valley, is relatively flat. However, curb cuts were not universal, many public buildings couldn't be entered by folks in wheelchairs, accessible parking spots were extremely hard to find and the notion of an accessible bathroom were as foreign to the community as commercial space travel! That has all changed as a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act the FAX ADA Advisory Committee and the advocacy efforts of the Fresno ADA Advisory Council.
Since the ADA is an unfunded mandate, it takes efforts on the part of the local disability community to make sure this civil rights federal law gets implemented at the local level. Sometimes this is done through litigation, more often through persuasion, education and persistence (see The Carrot or the Stick).
The Litigation Background
In 1997, wheelchair user Clayton Turner, a renowned mouth painter, was hit and seriously injured by a car exiting a driveway in a commercial area of the city. He was wheeling in the street because there were no sidewalks and, where sidewalks existed, no curb cuts. In addition to obtaining a cash settlement in 2002, an agreement was negotiated with the city of Fresno requiring the installation of curb cuts on the corners of all existing sidewalks by 2010. A census conducted by the Department of Public Works documented 4,200 uncut corners existed within the city boundaries.
Working in the context of the settlement, the Fresno ADA Advisory Council worked toward developing a policy to implement the agreement. In November 2002 as chair of the ADA Council, I wrote to Clayton about our success in getting the city to approve a policy he and the ADA Council had worked out. It reads, in part:
"I wanted to bring you up to date on yesterday's hearing at Fresno City Council. By a vote of 7-0, Fresno City Council accepted the wording the Fresno ADA Advisory Council wanted in the Amended Transition Plan. The section titled Installation now reads:
Based on the current estimate of 4,200 corners in the city of Fresno requiring ramps to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the city commits itself to a minimum installation of 600 ramps or cuts per year.
This wording binds the city to making sure the work you began with your law suit will lead to the desired outcome."
Persuasion, Education and Persistence
The Fresno ADA Advisory Council is an open forum for all disability issues, excluding public transportation, within the city boundaries. It deals with access to public buildings, programs, goods and services, pedestrian safety, including accessible traffic signals, minimum time to cross streets, accessible parking issues, disaster relief, housing etc.
When the ADA Council started holding monthly meetings at City Hall in 1993 participation by members of the disability community was marginal. At the December 2005 meeting 20 individuals drawn from the disability community participated, in addition to a number of city staff. Issues discussed included the location and installation of accessible pedestrian traffic signals, an elevator in a building occupied by seniors and disabled Fresnans that was out of order for two weeks, litigation against the city because the entrance to City Council chambers was too narrow for a larger wheelchair to pass through, announcement of an ADA group starting in the neighboring county of Madera modeled after the Fresno ADA Council, cleanliness of toilets and accessible pathways at a parking facility owned by the city, report on curb cut installation in the city under the No Neighborhood left behind program, and complaints received through the recently initiated ADA hot line.
No Neighborhood Left Behind Like many California cities, Fresno has been a prime example of urban sprawl, showing tremendous new growth in the northern perimeter combined with decaying inner city downtown areas. Early in 2005 the city decided to establish a policy of renewal for older neighborhoods. This was in addition to the block grant programs, safe routes to school and other federally funded programs. A $45,000,000 bond issue was floated specifically designed to update the infrastructures of older deteriorated segments of the city. Among the infrastructure projects were curb cut installations ensuring the city's continued commitment to meet the 600 installation mandate accepted earlier. Since the bond has a five year lifetime, by the time the funding runs out the city should be close to meeting its obligations under the Clayton Turner settlement.
In 1986 Fresno voters passed a half cent sales tax to improve transportation within the county. Unfortunately, almost all the funds derived were allocated to finance freeways and increase the car carrying capacity of existing roads.
An attempt was made in 2002 to pass a new measure extending the tax for another 20 years. AT that time, the Fresno ADA Advisory Council, under my guidance, joined the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club and a number of other stakeholders in opposing this extension, primarily because it did not contain enough money for public transportation and continued the current bias toward building more roads to deal with issues of congestion and terrible air quality.
After the 2002 failed attempt to obtain the two-thirds vote needed to pass the measure, a Steering Committee was organized under the auspices of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors consisting of representatives of the city and county, business and labor, and various stakeholders. Among the stakeholders were representatives of the League of Women Voters, Taxpayers' Association, Sierra Club, a cycling group, trails, environmental justice, and rail consolidation. I was asked to represent both the disability community and seniors on the 24 member committee.
For the past two years I have been attending weekly meetings of the Coalition for Livable Fresno Communities organized to work toward an equitable, transit oriented and balanced Measure C tax proposal. More than 30 local organizations have participated in the discussions and approved an allocation plan. However, it was recognized from the beginning that compromises would need to be made in what the Coalition wanted and what it would get.
Initially, three-hour Steering Committee meetings were set up on a monthly basis, but as deadlines began approaching these were increased to twice a month. Recognizing the 24 person committee was too cumbersome a vehicle to work out a final allocation table and expenditure plan, subcommittees were formed. These groups began meeting weekly. Initially, I believed becoming part of the public transit and local transportation subcommittees would protect the interests of my disabled and senior constituencies, but I quickly realized issues of concern could be raised by all subcommittees, and began attending all meetings. In November and December 2005, I was committing six to eight hours a week to these Measure C efforts. Throughout it all, I kept members of the Fresno ADA Advisory Council informed of progress.
Although it will be up to the electorate in November 2006 to make the final decision, there are a number of elements in the new proposal indicating a major shift in orientation. Among these are:
1. More than 25 percent of the anticipated $1,700,000,000 to be collected over 20 years will go toward public transportation, including increasing headways on most bus routes from 30 to 15 minutes, increasing support for paratransit services, subsidizing a farm labor van pool system, replacing older school buses and upgrading existing transit facilities. A major transportation infrastructure study will also be supported through this funding stream. On behalf of my senior constituency, I was able to obtain a commitment from the Steering Committee to provide free public transportation for seniors not eligible for paratransit service, in addition to a subsidized taxi script program. The funds available for these two programs is estimated at $685,000 a year.
2. Installation of sidewalks and curb cuts on all future road construction and reconstruction using Measure C funds, with the exception of expressways. In Fresno and many of the smaller cities in the county, sidewalks where they do exist, are sporadically interrupted by stretches of grass, causing wheelchair users and other pedestrians to travel in the roadway. This provision will guarantee that future road construction will not permit this pattern to continue.
3. Commitment of funds from local transportation allocations to provide curb cuts for existing sidewalks in all 15 cities within the county. Where communities have met their ADA mandates for curb cuts and barrier removal on existing sidewalks, funds will go back into their discretionary local transportation budget.
4. Funds to stimulate transit oriented higher density housing that is both affordable and accessible.
In early 2005 the ADA Council decided to shift responsibility for housing to an emerging coalition. The Deputy Chair of the ADA Council, Marilyn Jost, joined that group and is currently heading its accessibility standards subcommittee.
By now, the ADA Council has achieved considerable recognition in the community and to our delight, a major developer recently approached Marilyn and me to develop accessibility guidelines for two privately funded new projects. One, located on the campus of California State University projects the building of more than 400 units, while the other development in the southeastern part of the city calls for the building of 782 single family dwellings.
Faced with a request for guidelines for these two projects to make all units minimally accessible, I consulted with Eleanor Smith of Concrete Change, an Atlanta based organization, which has led the movement toward universal design in housing. Eleanor has also been involved in developing local ordinances in Atlanta, Austin, Urbana, and other cities. As a result of that consultation, I included the following in a letter to the developer seeking advice:
1. A no-step entry into the house or apartment;
2. A 32 inch clear door frame into the house or apartment and into all rooms; 3. Hallways at least 40 inches wide;
4. The master bathroom should have a 60 inch wide space for a wheelchair to turn around;
5. If there is a second bathroom, a clear space of 30 inches by 48 inches would permit chairs and walkers into the bathroom;
6. Electric outlets should be between 18 and 24 inches from the floor to the center of the plug;
7. Light switches should be no higher than 48 inches; and,
8. Blocking or reinforcements in the wall should be included to permit future installation of grab bars near the toilet and in the bathtub area.
At this time, the recommendations are moving forward. If they are implemented, Fresno will be at the cutting edge of voluntary accessible housing for people who could remain where they are living as they age. It could change the look of our community as well as become a model for others in the nation.
Almost 30 years ago, under the leadership of members of the disability community, Fresno established one of the first paratransit services in the nation. All vehicles were lift equipped and the city's public transit system operated the service. In 1992 the city decided to privatize the operation believing Handy Ride could be run more economically and efficiently by a private contractor. Fresno Area Express (FAX), the public transportation authority running the fixed route and paratransit service, consulted members of the disability community in making this change. As a result, the FAX ADA Advisory Committee was formed.
In 2005 the level of service delivered by the contractor had deteriorated to such an extent that members of the Advisory Committee were committed to seeking a change in operators. Complaints ranged from poor on-time performance, rudeness of dispatchers and reservationists, inordinately long time spent on vehicles and a general breakdown in service. I was appointed to join the five person committee making recommendations to Fresno City Council about which of the five companies bidding to take over Handy Ride should be given the contract for the next five years.
Several meetings were held to evaluate the Request for Proposals (RFP) submitted by the five contenders. After considerable discussion and some delays in the decision making process as a result of not following mandated procedures, MV Transit was selected as the new provider. The cost to the city for a five year period is slightly more than $18,000,000.
MV Transit has worked with the FAX ADA Advisory Committee in making the transition as smooth as possible. On December 17, 2005 the transition took place and it will take several months to determine if the current level of service shows the magnitude of improvement promised!
Changing the face of a city to make it more disability friendly is a process requiring time, persistence, political intervention and the efforts of many advocates. Frequently, those in policy making and implementing positions are not aware of our needs or existence.
If the No Neighborhood Left Behind program continues, if Measure C is passed, and if the private housing market responds as hoped to the proposed guidelines, Fresno will have taken a leap forward in evolving into a model disability friendly city!
Ed Eames, Ph.D., Chair Fresno ADA Advisory Council. Contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.