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September 19, 2005

Rebuilding after Katrina: where's the ACCESS?

I keep watching, in the ongoing deluge of post-Katrina coverage, for something about rebuilding housing so that it's accessible. Not rocket science, really. But I haven't seen a thing in the media about it. And that's where I'm looking.

There's been a lot of back and forth in emails and among email lists about the crip groups who are trying to have an impact, trying to find out something. Susan FitzMaurice has started the website http://www.katrinadisability.info and I'm told officials are visiting it daily to see what they can learn. I've heard of meetings and discussions, some with officials pretty high up in the feds... But you just don't see a word in the media.

There have been a lot of stories (with more I'm sure in the pipeline) about disabled peoples' fates: I've seen Katrina Displaces Thousands With HIV; I've seen Disabled evacuees languish: Advocates: Help for special-needs victims lacking from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (a good one, but nothing about re-building with access built in). There was one in my local paper today, picked up from the AP. Somebody emailed me implying that The New Yorker had something about access in rebuilding, but I can't tell if it's what my email friend is saying or somebody writing in the New Yorker, and I haven't yet found it online (if anybody does, holler.)

The bottom line: there may be the isolated story out there somewhere that mentions this, but it's certainly not Big News.

I was appalled to open my New York Times last Saturday (Sept. 10) to find four -- count 'em: 4! -- op-ed articles by Folks With Authority (whom The Times had obviously solicited), pontificating about the rebuilding of New Orleans. Make It an Island, wrote Bruce Babbitt (who you may recall as the Sec. of the Interior in the Clinton administration). Raise the Ground, said Henry Petroski, a professor of engineering at Duke, the author of "Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering." Make it a Marsh, said Craig E. Colten, a professor of geography at Louisiana State University; Build Diversity, wrote Michael E. Crutcher, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Kentucky.

Not a word, of course, about ACCESS.

Amazing, really. What were the pictures we saw, over and over? People with one form of disability or another. What did we hear? That folks were trapped in homes. Do you wonder, as I do, why nobody publicly seems to be connecting the dots and saying "hey, these homes we're rebuilding better have an easier way for folks to get out!" Is that too much of a leap to make? Guess so.

Yours Truly fired off an email letter to the editor: "Make it wheelchair accessible!"

Of course, the letter never ran.

Scott Rains, on his blog, is asking the questions I want to know the answers to as well: Will FEMA-funded Post-Katrina Homes be Universally Designed? Visitable? he asks (and has an earlier post here. )

You can't rely on laws to get this job done. There's the Fair Housing Act, covering "multi-family" housing -- but who knows if anybody's going to follow it in the rush to re-build? And there's all this "temporary housing" going up... and it's got the inevitable STEPS. Why steps?

I was back and forth with Eleanor Smith of Concrete Change over the weekend about all this. "Inaccessible houses impede our lives," says Eleanor, who uses a wheelchair. "They keep us from entering or leaving on our own. It's totally illogical to be scrambling to retrofit existing homes for access -- and then have the government build new homes with gross barriers after the hurricane."

Three things (you probably know this list already):
-- a no-step entrance
-- wide-enough doorways (32 inches clear passage)
-- a bathroom you can get into in a wheelchair.

We're trying to hatch a plan. More here -- and elsewhere, I hope -- when it's hatched.

Posted by mjohnson at September 19, 2005 09:35 AM