On an Off Ramp? 

In the Bluff

At times, last week's Americans with Disabilities Act conference was a bit like a Where's Waldo? search. Birmingham-based ADA specialist James Terry showed local architects, engineers, and disabled people in the audience several pictures where builders were either not thinking about disabled people or were not thinking, period. The trick was to see how.

In some of the slides, the problem was fairly obvious: wheelchair lifts that wheelchair users had to be lifted onto; handrails protruding at, shall we say, gelding height; and columns smack dab in the middle of handicapped-parking spaces. Other problems -- such as the hotel corridor carpeted in a medley of color, shape, and texture -- were less obvious. The audience saw a flat floor, albeit one decorated with what can only be described as questionable taste.

But if that slide was bad, the next slide was even worse. The hall was actually a ramp on one side and a flight of stairs on the other, but you could only see the difference from the bottom.

Randy Alexander, community organizer at the Memphis Center for Independent Living (MCIL), said he could go around Memphis and find the same type of examples.

"Even when they've redone stuff, it hasn't always been right," he said and cited the gazebo at Court Square.

"We hear about access issues constantly. Access is still an afterthought," Alexander said. "We're hoping the city can get to a place where instead of fighting access and complete inclusion, access is thought about on the front end."

Last month the city entered into a consent agreement with the Department of Justice to bring the majority of the city's facilities into compliance by 2008. City architect Mel Scheuerman estimates the cost somewhere between $45 and $60 million.

"I think if you called every mayor of a major city -- and even medium-sized cities -- you would find that everybody is struggling, because this is an unfunded federal mandate," said Scheuerman. "The city of Memphis has over 14,000 intersections. At a minimum of four ramps per intersection, at a couple of thousand dollars a ramp, this is a monumental task that a city of any size could not have implemented in a year."

Conference sponsor MCIL wants to make people "understand that when access is done wrong, how much of a limit it puts on people," said Alexander. "We want people to get a little more education and an understanding of what we're looking for and why."

No matter who just isn't getting it, Terry's slides leave little doubt that it isn't gotten. I mean, one of them showed a ramp with a three-foot drop behind it. He was jokingly calling it "the ski jump," but yikes. If you didn't know it was there, you could land with a face full of sewer grate. Under the ADA, cities were supposed to do a transition plan in 1992 and 1993 and then implement that plan in '93. Scheuerman said that most cities are "extremely behind in the mandate."

"Like any retroactive law, it is very difficult to go back in a very quick manner and fix an inventory of 400 buildings," he said.

Maybe I'm being naive, but it seems like we should have more of a handle on universal access than we do. I don't know what exactly has held us back -- a lack of federal funding, a lack of caring, a lack of forethought, maybe a combo of the three -- but something has.

And really, ADA compliance should be a community-wide issue.

Terry stresses that accessible design doesn't just benefit people with disabilities but everyone who uses facilities: people carrying packages, strollers, heavy items. And not to bum anyone out, but as we age, we all have a more significant risk of developing some type of disability that will slow us down. Lastly, incorrectly done ADA-related retrofitting isn't just harmful to those with disabilities.

"We've had more personal-injury lawsuits based on curb ramp problems than any other ADA-related item," said Terry. "And most of the people suing did not have a disability before the accident."

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