Disabilities law hits 20 years of making a community open to all

Breaking Down Barriers


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The Americans with Disabilities Act -- established 20 years ago on July 26 -- has not only changed the landscape of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, but redefined the meaning of "public."

"Before the ADA, people with disabilities weren't considered part of the public," said attorney Paul O'Hanlon of the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania. "Because of the law, you have an equal right to be there. It used to be the exception that you were there."

Mr. O'Hanlon and other local disability rights leaders will celebrate the changes the ADA has inspired and look at the challenges that lie ahead at a community forum and street festival at Station Square marking the anniversary on Monday.

The landmark ADA, the only civil rights law for people with disabilities in the world, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, public spaces, transportation, and other parts of community life -- the same protection guaranteed to people on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age and religion.

20th Anniversary Celebration of the Americans with Disabilities Act

When: Monday at Sheraton Station Square.

1:30 to 5 p.m.: Community forum. Featured speaker will be Allen Kukovich, executive director of the Power of 32 Regional Visioning Project.

5 to 8 p.m.: Street festival in Bessemer Court with food, live music and dancing.

Sponsors: Allegheny County Disability Connection, Three Rivers Center for Independent Living, UCP/CLASS, City-County Task Force on Disabilities and Consumer Health Coalition.

To get information or to RSVP: 412-350-2769.

It signified a national shift in thinking, said Mr. O'Hanlon of Squirrel Hill who uses a wheelchair for a muscular condition. Prior to the law, he said, the typical member of the public was assumed to be a young, able-bodied adult, most likely a male.

"With the ADA, we began to look at who actually made up the public and who was being excluded because of this definition of 'typical' -- not only people with disabilities, but older adults, women, children. The concept of universal design -- usable by anyone -- was born. The ordinary became routinely accessible."

So how has the ADA changed Pittsburgh and Allegheny County over the last 20 years -- and what still needs to be done? Here's what Mr. O'Hanlon and other activists say:

Building access

Beginning in 1992, owners of existing buildings were to begin removing physical barriers. All new buildings are required to comply with ADA accessibility guidelines. Government facilities must be accessible.

A shining example of accessibility is PNC Park, opened in 2001. It's considered one of the most accessible major league baseball parks in the United States.

Of the local government buildings that have been retrofitted for access, one of the most disappointing is the Allegheny County Courthouse on Grant Street, said Lucy Spruill, director of public policy and community relations at UCP/CLASS. "It still needs a lot of work to be truly accessible," she said.

Access to neighborhood businesses is another disappointment, activists say. Businesses are required to make "readily achievable" accommodations, but vary widely in this regard, Mr. O'Hanlon said. For example, nearly all businesses in Squirrel Hill have no-step entries, while many on the South Side do not.

The city's ADA coordinator, Richard Meritzer, disagreed. He said most of the businesses on East Carson Street are accessible.

To encourage compliance, the City Planning Department in 2001 published a how-to guide for businesses. The department is now working on a "One-Step" packet that outlines the process for removing a single step from an entry and includes information about loans and grants for barrier removal.

"It's a hard sell," said Mr. O'Hanlon. "Some business people don't see this as something they need to attend to."

But a major step forward has been access to polling sites. Of Allegheny County's 1,321 voting places, just three await improvement. Five years ago, 248 were inaccessible. With that goal nearly accomplished, the focus is now on voter registration, Mr. O'Hanlon said.

Housing

The ADA does not govern private residences, but it does cover public housing. As a result of a 2006 settlement agreement, the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh was required to add 322 units of accessible housing over five years. The housing authority exceeded the requirement by adding 441 units in four years.

Mr. O'Hanlon noted that Pittsburgh has a general lack of accessible housing because so many structures have steps. He said he remains hopeful that the hard-won "visitability" tax credit program, available to homeowners who add a few accessible features, will take hold here.

Pedestrian access

Pittsburgh residents enjoy sidewalk ramps (also known as "curb cuts") in every neighborhood, and the city continues to put them in as requested, Mr. Meritzer said.

Snow removal from sidewalks is an ADA issue, say members of the City-Council Task Force on Disability. The task force has pressed the city to enforce a law already on the books that authorizes fines for property owners who fail to remove snow from their sidewalks.

The city's Public Works department has a 10-year plan for installing audible traffic signals at intersections. Sixty signals will be installed each year.

Transportation

Accessible transportation in Allegheny County is one of the best in the nation, with paratransit (shared-ride van service) that exceeds ADA minimums." Ms. Spruill said. All buses have wheelchair lifts, but service cutbacks are a concern.

Unlike many major cities, Pittsburgh has no accessible cab service.

Cultural and recreation venues

"Our major cultural arts venues have made impressive strides to provide physical access, as well as to accommodate patrons with vision and hearing loss," said Dee Delaney, former executive director of FISA Foundation, which has funded many access initiatives. Three Rivers Arts Festival began adding accessible features in 2003.

VisitPittsburgh has taken steps to ensure that tourists with disabilities enjoy their stay in the region, she added. The agency is upgrading its website to make it accessible to people who are blind or have low vision.

Six of the nine county parks have installed universal design playgrounds over the last year, and two -- Round Hill Park in Elizabeth Township and Deer Lakes Park in Frazer -- now have accessible spray parks. The city is evaluating accessibility in its parks.

Health care

Enhanced access to health care settings has progressed more slowly than other community changes, Ms. Delaney said. But local facilities are catching up. UPMC established a disability resource center in 2007 to ensure that all facilities provide accommodation and that employees are trained in disability awareness.

Employment

The ADA's effect on increasing the employment of people with disabilities "has been a failure," Mr. O'Hanlon said.

Nationally and locally, the rate of unemployment among people with disabilities is about 60 percent, the highest of any group. Data show that the recession has disproportionally affected people with disabilities.

Although the ADA has had a dramatic effect on increasing the number of people who obtain higher education, many are not getting hired.

"The ADA only addresses discrimination, it can't address [employers'] attitudes," said Ms. Spruill.

Too many people with disabilities find themselves stuck in jobs described as the three Fs of employment -- food, fetch and filth, said Sally Jo Snyder, community organizer with the Consumer Health Coalition. "We can go beyond this," she said.

The Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, a nonprofit that focuses on work force development, recently established an inclusion committee to identify the challenges in the labor market for specific groups of people, including those with disabilities.

Civic leadership

The City-County Task Force on Disabilities was established in 1994. The city has an ADA coordinator, and the county has an office dedicated to disability issues.

John Tague, former chair of the task force, would like to see more people with disabilities appointed to city and county boards and commissions. Very few have such representation, he said. Applications to city and county boards include the option for applicants with disabilities to identify themselves as such.


Tina Calabro: tina.calabro@verizon.net .


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