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Access Denied 

Local activists push City to prioritize accessibility

In July, the U.S. Department of Justice closed its decade-long Americans with Disabilities Act case against the City of Bend, even though work to make sidewalks and crosswalks more accessible was incomplete. A letter from the DOJ to the City of Bend said "(Bend) has acceptably progressed in compliance;" essentially saying, although not complete and with dozens of curbs and sidewalks still inaccessible, it trusts the City will finish without the DOJ monitoring.

Understandably disappointed by the ruling, local accessibility activists weren't defeated.

After taking some time to regroup and consider their options, members of the Central Oregon Coalition for Access (COCA) began speaking out at City Council meetings.

At the Sept. 17 meeting, representatives from the group presented a stack of 150 barrier removal requests to the City, ranging from missing or inadequate curb cuts to a lack of audible crosswalk signals and busted up sidewalks.

"We know the required improvements will cost money," said COCA chair Carol Fulkerson at the meeting. "We also know our inability to participate in the community costs money through lost opportunities."

Currently, the City budgets $30,000 to address individual barrier removals. Accessibility improvements made within the context of a larger capital project fall under a heftier $500,000 allotment.

However, those earmarked funds don't go far. Curb cuts range in cost from $2,500 to $10,000, according to City of Bend Accessibility Manager Karin Morris. An audible crosswalk signal starts at about $5,000. Morris estimates about 60 of the 150 requests are for curb cuts. Even if they were all simple cases, it would take the City five years to get through all of them at its current funding level—far longer than the March 2015 deadline set by the DOJ.

And the $500,000 doesn't last long either. The City is currently working on adding 200 linear feet of sidewalk on 5th between Greenwood and Kearny, which will set it back about $25,000, Morris says. And the engineering services alone for a project doing curb ramps on NW Summit Drive between its east and west intersections with Mt. Washington Drive has already racked up about $200,000.

"The City knows it's a problem," Morris says. And while she would have preferred to get the requests directly from the advocates, she says she appreciates the awareness raising effort. "I think it brought something to the councilors' eyes to address it. I think that's good."

But even getting a moment to speak at the City Council meeting was a struggle for advocates. The visitors' section of the meeting was heavy with testimony about vacation rentals and the Council spent considerable time discussing those concerns before moving forward with other subjects. Sometime after 9:30 pm, accessibility advocate Michael Funke spoke out of turn from the audience to remind council that people with disabilities were there to speak, and were needing to leave due to the late hour.

"This week is the 10th anniversary of the Project Civic Access agreement," said COCA chair Carol Fulkerson. "The City has said it would take another 15 years [to complete the projects in the DOJ case]. Waiting another 15 years for civil rights is not acceptable."

Ben Hill, who uses a wheelchair because he was born with spina bifida, said at the Council meeting that he feels like Bend is less responsive to accessibility requests than other cities he's lived in.

"There seems to be no willingness to work with advocates on these issues," Hill said.

Morris says she's doing the best she can, considering that she is a one-person department with a limited budget. In addition to taking the lead on removing barriers to accessibility, she also works to ensure that City projects, meetings, and information are designed to be accessible for people with disabilities. Her position was created in response to the DOJ case, though a number of people have been in the job over the past 10 years.

"I don't believe that there are people in the City who do not want to increase access," Morris says. Instead, she explains, there is simply a lack of resources to address accessibility issues as fast as she and advocates would like.

Morris says that in an ideal world, she would have more staff and more funds to address ADA compliance issues. Morris points out that while most property owners are not aware that City Code makes them responsible for the upkeep of the sidewalks on their property, the City doesn't have the resources to notify non-compliant property owners or exact penalties for a failure to address these issues.

"We could use one or two people that just enforce that code," Morris says. "We don't have the staff right now.... The way we're funded right now is bare bones."

But while advocates are concerned about specific barriers across town, they are quick to point out that these requests are the tip of the iceberg, and that for Bend to be truly accessible to all its residents, City leaders need to develop a greater general awareness.

Nancy Stevens, a blind woman who has been lobbying the City for a crosswalk near her home for the past six years, says that awareness-raising efforts like "Disability for a Day"—where community leaders experience what it's like to get around in a wheelchair—are important, but only have short-term impact.

"You can see that light going on, but it doesn't stay on," she says. "It's like it's on a dimmer switch."

Stevens and her fellow COCA members fear that, without the DOJ case as a burr in the City's side, that light will go out completely.

"It's attitudinal," Stevens says. "When they say, 'What can we do to make this easier?'—that's how we're going to make the most progress. Instead of, 'Please can we get a crosswalk?'"

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