A Step In The Right Direction

February 28, 2007
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While the Americans with Disabilities Act has made strides over the last decade in making businesses and public places accessible to people with disabilities, more education is necessary, said Robert Lewakowski, outreach/accessibility specialist for Disability Advocates of Kent County.

“Even if a business does just one or two things, just taking an effort to make a correction (is helpful),” he said.

Following an inventory of downtown Grand Rapids, Lewakowski said Disability Advocates found there are some areas of downtown that are not as accessible as they could be. The inventory showed that Campau Avenue was the worst, with certain lower-income areas being difficult to navigate, as well.

“The path of travel has to be uninterrupted,” Lewakowski said.

Jay Fowler, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, said the DDA contracted with Disability Advocates of Kent County to conduct the inventory in the downtown area so it could learn more about what was and wasn’t accessible.

“It was really quite educational for us to learn about the barriers that exist in the built environment, especially the outdoor built environment for the handicapped,” he said.

Fowler said he thought sidewalk ramps were a big contributor to accessibility, but it turned out some of the ramps were not in compliance with the ADA.

While the worst stretch of sidewalk, along Campau Avenue from Pearl Street to Monroe Avenue, has already been scheduled to be redone, Fowler said the DDA has mapped out the worst cases and the streets that they know will be reconstructed over the next five years. Fowler said there is no budget planned yet for the repairs.

“It would be our goal to remove barriers,” he said. “We really want downtown to be accessible.”

Though the worst of the issues should be taken care of within five years, Fowler said to make the area fully accessible will take a little longer.

“We can’t bring everything into compliance all at once,” he said. “The rest, I think, will take a little bit of time through the course of the next several years.”

The DDA will also host a workshop before the spring construction season to ensure that everyone understands the criteria of complying with accessibility standards.

Mark Scobell, an architect with Dan Vos Construction, said although updates to the original accessibility standards were released a year and a half ago, they are still a year to a year and a half from implementation by the Department of Justice.

Scobell said building codes are updated every three to four years and the International Code Council and American National Standards Institute have updated and brought codes close to the ADA standard and what it will be.

“People are more in tune to the needs of physically challenged people, as far as hearing and physical disability,” he said. “They’re more sensitive now than they used to be.”

Though there are still people who balk at the code requirements, Scobell said there are state criteria for businesses to prove hardship.

“We get into what the potential issues are early enough,” he said.

“It’s something that’s not going to readily change and bring itself up to code and modification.”

Scobell said the codes are for both safety and accommodation.

“It is part of our regulatory checklist that we all need to be aware of and provide service and provide design solutions for,” he said.

Peter Berg, coordinator of technical assistance with the DBTAC Great Lakes Americans with Disabilities Act Center in Chicago, said some of the standards that have been most noticeable are curb-ramps that allow easier access to and from streets and businesses.

“Curb cuts have allowed individuals access to travel in a neighborhood,” Berg said.

While it has helped those in wheelchairs, Berg said it also has been beneficial to those with strollers, to postal carriers and other delivery services that use carts, people on bikes, skateboards and rollerblades, and other wheeled transportation that may not be related to a disability.

Berg said one of the major challenges has been with existing facilities.

“Businesses with existing facilities do what is readily achievable,” he said. “Readily achievable is defined as what can be easily accomplished without much difficulty or expense.”

Another challenge is the accessibility to a business’s entrance, Berg said, which may have difficult handles or heavy doors, for example.

“I think that’s where you see a lot of difficulty for business and misunderstanding these requirements,” he said. “I think that, for the most part, new construction projects that have been built since the effective date of the ADA have allowed individuals with disabilities to get out into the community and purchase the goods that are being offered by local businesses. As other businesses are altered, they are becoming more accessible. People with disabilities need to purchase bread and milk and medical items and the whole range of goods that other people purchase.”

When a business becomes accessible to those with disabilities, it gains a new market, Berg said.

“They’re going to benefit because they’re going to expand their market to the 54 million Americans with disabilities,” he said.  CQX

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