Sunday, June 8, 2003

Alive & well

Making sidewalks accessible is the decent thing to do

Asked for my most important criterion in selecting a place to live, I would probably answer "sidewalks." Without sidewalks, I am marooned, isolated, disconnected to all that is around me. With them, I can access any service, program or product that anyone else can.

That's how Joan Barden, a wheelchair user in Sacramento, feels too. When utility lines, tree roots, and benches repeatedly impeded her free movement through her own city, forcing her and her wheelchair into the roads alongside cars and trucks, she decided to act. In a class action suit involving other citizens who are blind, use wheelchairs or walkers or have other disabilities, Barden maintained that the city of Sacramento is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide equal access to sidewalks. A 9th Circuit U.S. court decision March 3 agreed, finding that sidewalks are a necessary link to public programs and services and that without them, people with disabilities are being discriminated against and excluded.

Sacramento is appealing to the Supreme Court for a new decision, one that would relieve the city of the responsibility to maintain and construct accessible sidewalks. Technically, the argument centers on whether or not sidewalks are indeed a public program or service and whether or not a federal law has any say in what a city does about them.

But the legal argument obscures the key question here, the simple matter of what makes sense for everyone and what is, well, the just plain decent thing to do.

Broken concrete is annoying for anyone, but for a person with a cane or walker, it can mean losing balance, falling and injury. Benches situated in such a way that only a narrow, walking person can pass can force a person in a wheelchair into the street. The absence of a curb ramp can bring a person using a wheelchair to an absolute, abrupt halt, and the absence of any detectable tactile warnings on that ramp can cause a blind person to walk, inadvertently, off the sidewalk and into the street.

Several organizations have joined the Barden v. Sacramento lawsuit, most notably the American Association of Retired Persons. Surveys conducted by the AARP found that one-fifth of people over age fifty and one-third of those over 75 reported poor sidewalks to be a hindrance to mobility, and most over 65 named sidewalks as the second most likely mode of travel.

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act is all about prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in all programs, services and activities of public entities. Not only do sidewalks lead to our public entities, but they are also a public entity in their own right. You might say that sidewalks are the complex network of paths comprising pedestrian walkways. You might say they are ribbons of concrete that, when smooth and unobstructed by tree roots or utility lines, bring all citizens, with and without disabilities, into the same employment, education and recreational activities our communities offer.

The money being spent appealing to the Supreme court would be much better spent on all those sidewalks - mending them, clearing them, constructing curb ramps with detectable warning surfaces and generally rendering them accessible to all citizens. And cities with some remaining common sense and traditional American values won't need to wait on the Supreme Court's decision at all.

Contact Debra Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail:

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