‘I’m sure I never even thought about it.”
That’s what Tom Bradley said about how aware he was of accessibility problems facing people with disabilities just five years ago, before both of his legs were amputated at the knee because of diabetes complications. He has used a wheelchair and below-knee prosthetic legs since.
“I’m the same way,” said Mary Ellen Bradley, Tom’s wife of 53 years. “As long as I could get in, it just never would occur to me.”
Now, they both have mental maps of all the best disabled parking spots in Olympia. If they’re going somewhere new, Mary Ellen will often scout out the area ahead of time, checking the size of bathrooms, the width of doors and the presence of parking.
From wheelchair ramps to restaurant aisles to sidewalks, how — and whether — they’ll have the access they need is always on their minds.
In Thurston County, about 12.5 percent of the population has a disability, and more than 26,000 disabled parking permits — plates, placards and tabs — are registered to Thurston County drivers, according to the state Department of Licensing. And because the population is aging, the number of people with disabilities in the United States is expected to double by 2050 from what it was in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
With almost half of people older than 65 reporting some kind of disability, access will be a growing need.
That could be a big test for downtown Olympia, where city planners expect to house about 5,000 more people in the next 20 years. The cost of updating historic buildings and infrastructure can make it difficult to meet federal accessibility standards, which some advocates already consider the bare minimum. That would leave some of Thurston County’s disabled population without full access to the city they love.
Getting around downtown Olympia
The disabled parking spots at Olympia City Hall are great, Mary Ellen Bradley said, because they’re at an angle to the curb and there’s plenty of space next to the car for Tom to get into his wheelchair.
Those spots would be better if there were enough of them. Despite the number of spots meeting federal Americans with Disabilities Act standards, a little before 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, all four of the spots were taken. Time for Plan B — a situation the Bradleys know all too well.
The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction office, half a mile away, has a disabled parking spot right out front. It’s marked for visitors only, but it’s one of the few spots in the downtown core that the Bradleys are comfortable parking in. Some of the other spots are on uneven ground, which makes it difficult for Tom to balance in the wheelchair, or they’re on a curb, which makes it nearly impossible for him to get out of the car.
Mary Ellen grabs Tom’s walker and wheelchair out of the trunk of their little sedan.
Tom turns in the passenger’s seat to face the open door, and Mary Ellen brings him the walker, placing the wheelchair nearby. Tom grabs onto the walker and rocks back and forth a few times until he gains enough momentum to stand, still using the walker for balance.
He maneuvers until he’s able to sit down in the wheelchair, and Mary Ellen puts the away the walker, which helps him stand or walk a few steps, but doesn’t work for more.
The whole process takes a couple of minutes — after they’ve found a spot, that is.
But it’s just the beginning of their difficulties accessing downtown.
When the ADA falls short
Part of the problem with accessibility in Olympia has to do with the shortcomings of the ADA, according to Doyle Fanning.
Fanning managed the ADA accessibility program for the Governor’s Office in the late 1990s, bringing state-owned facilities into compliance with ADA standards. She is disabled as the result of childhood polio and varyingly uses crutches, a walker or a wheelchair.
“It sets minimum standards for what you need to do,” she said of the ADA. “But it is in the implementation of those minimum standards that you have problems.”
Fanning said that people too often focus on meeting ADA requirements — a certain number of parking spaces, a certain slope for a ramp — without thinking about how people use those accommodations.
For example, Fanning served on the board of directors of the Community Foundation of South Puget Sound, which met at the Washington PUD Association building on Union Avenue. It’s a newer building, built in 2007, and was recognized by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for its environmentally friendly design, with an ADA-compliant ramp at the back entrance near the accessible parking spots.
The only problem? For security reasons, the door at the top of the ramp remains locked, with no way to request entry. Fanning said she suggested a button or an intercom system and was met with concerns that the system would be abused, primarily by children pressing the button for fun.
When asked about the lack of wheelchair access to the back door, the PUD Association’s administrative assistant Stefany Zelepuza said that the front door, which also has a ramp, is meant to be the only entrance to the building. She said they have never received a complaint regarding accessibility.
However, the only way to get to the front door from the disabled parking spots in the back is through an alley with a downhill incline toward Union Avenue. It’s technically accessible, but can be difficult or impossible to traverse for some people with disabilities.
“Your security issue is in conflict with access,” Fanning said.
Liz Anderson, communications and government affairs director for the PUD Association, said that her organizations hopes to be in conversation with Fanning and others to help solve the issue.
But that building is no outlier, Fanning said. This is a common issue, especially downtown, where on-street parking is difficult or impossible to access for some with disabilities, but security at back entrances — often nearer accessible parking lots — is a concern.
Fanning said another big issue is that the ADA offers a one-size-fits-all solution to challenges of all sizes. In some places — say, those frequented primarily by young people — ADA standards are generous. In other places, like hospitals, the same standards can be insufficient.
“You need to look at every situation independently of (the ADA) and say, ‘What are the needs of this particular institution?’” Fanning said. “They apply it just in a kind of flat way, instead of asking, ‘Who are the people who are likely to come here? How many of them?’ And adapting ADA to fit the particular situation.”
Downtown businesses struggle to become accessible
But for downtown businesses, the high costs of renovation and efforts to maintain buildings’ historic value can clash with the need to provide access for customers.
“As a small-business owner, you have to keep your eye on the ball with accessibility,” said Todd Cunningham, building official for the city of Olympia. “You’re not thinking about that step. You’re thinking about opening your business and getting customers in there and making money.”
In new or renovated buildings, private businesses are required to meet ADA standards where they are readily achievable — a standard that Cunningham said is subjective and can include considerations like cost. They also have to meet similar state and local accessibility standards, which require more documentation when standards can’t be met.
According to Cunningham, if it is unreasonable for a building to be renovated to meet standards — say, a storefront in downtown Olympia with a single step to get in the door and no room for a ramp — allowances may be made to gain compliance, such as providing a narrower, steeper or portable ramp.
In existing buildings not undergoing renovation, businesses are required to meet standards to the extent that it is possible given the current building conditions. For example, a business in an existing building would not be required to install an accessible elevator, but rather to provide the same services on the bottom floor as the top.
Allowances like those can be helpful for business owners who want to make their buildings accessible for customers, but are unable to pay for renovation costs or want to preserve some aspect of a historic building.
“You’ve got a small business that’s probably just squeaking by, and now they’ve gotta put a lift in and that lift is ten grand?” Cunningham said. “That can make somebody go out of business.”
But in some cases, they serve as an example of the discrepancy between ADA compliance and practical accessibility.
Gardner’s Restaurant, for example, leases its building and was not able to provide a permanent wheelchair ramp for its entrance. Instead, it uses a portable wooden ramp placed over the stairs to its entrance, which does meet all ADA standards required of the restaurant.
But Mary Ellen Bradley has had a hard time pushing the wheelchair up the steeper-than-normal ramp and keeping Tom stable going down it, and neither of them liked the inconvenience of having to ask restaurant staff to bring the portable ramp out for them. So despite it being their favorite restaurant, they haven’t been back in years.
“We used to love to go there,” Mary Ellen said.
“It was kind of our special occasion restaurant,” Tom added.
The city’s role
But beyond the letter of the law, there isn’t much the city can do.
In Washington, accessibility standards aren’t actively enforced through inspections but rather through civil rights enforcement. People submit complaints to the Justice Department, the city’s ADA coordinator, or Cunningham, who then investigates whether the business or entity is in violation of accessibility standards.
“If somebody feels like they can’t get into somewhere, then they’ll usually call me, and then I’ll go take a ride and I’ll go look at it,” Cunningham said.
But if they feel like they can’t get into somewhere that complies with accessibility standards? Cunningham will often have a conversation with the business owner suggesting alternatives, but ultimately, there’s nothing the city can do.
But the city is working on some of the problems it can control. The Public Works department is installing new sidewalks with more pedestrian space and new ADA-compliant curb ramps at a cost of approximately $30,000 per street corner. The next big project includes several blocks of Legion Street and is slated for 2019.
Public Works fixes sidewalks based on public complaints, especially where tree roots make them hard to navigate, and has installed audible pedestrian signals for people with visual impairments at some crosswalks.
The city also hopes that its Downtown Strategy, a five-year plan the City Council adopted in April to create “a safe and welcoming downtown for all,” will encourage private investments in building and renovation projects and increase downtown accessibility by default.
“Our role is to see that those private investments can occur in line with community goals,” said Amy Buckler, senior planner for the city of Olympia. “In doing so we’re paving the way for changes that can provide more accessibility.”
In the future
According to Fanning, the most important step the city can take to improve access is include people with disabilities in their planning processes.
“I’m willing, and I know other people are willing, to come meet with them to talk about solutions,” Fanning said.
Some ideas? Fanning suggested flattening the curbs next to some on-street parking so people who use wheelchairs can take advantage of those spots. Those with disabled parking permits are able to park in those spots for free and for an unlimited amount of time, but they often can’t access them.
Mary Ellen also proposed that the city provide a map of all its disabled parking spots, like the one provided by the Thurston County Courthouse, so people can park downtown without scouting it out beforehand.
Ultimately, Fanning said she wants people to stop looking at accessibility as someone else’s problem. Chances are, it will affect most of us at some point.
“(Almost) everyone will be disabled at some point in their lives, you know?” Fanning said. “They’ll get arthritis, they’ll have a knee replacement, they’ll break their ankle. … And we just don’t think about that. We think it’s somebody else, but it’s not. It’s all of us. … We just need to be realizing it’s all of us.”
Filing a complaint
Here’s who to call if you or someone you know has suggestions, questions or complaints regarding accessibility in Thurston County:
Olympia Public Works: 360-753-8333. Call here to report problems accessing sidewalks, curb ramps and transportation.
Olympia ADA Coordinator, Nicole Camus: 360-753-8213. Call here to report city-owned properties and/or services in possible violation of ADA requirements.
Olympia Building Official, Todd Cunningham: 360-753-8486. Call here to report private properties in possible violation of accessibility requirements or with general suggestions/questions related to disabled access.
City of Lacey: 360-491-3214. Call the Lacey City Manager’s business office to be directed to the right person for any complaints, suggestions or questions related to accessibility in Lacey.
City of Tumwater: 360-754-5855. Call Tumwater City Hall to be directed to the right person for any complaints, suggestions or questions related to accessibility in Tumwater.
City of Yelm: 360-458-3244. Call Yelm City Hall to be directed to the right person for any complaints, suggestions or questions related to accessibility in Yelm.
Department of Justice: 800-514-0301 (voice) or 800-514-0383. Call here for ADA-related questions, information, materials or to learn how to file a complaint with the Justice Department. Find more information or file an online complaint at https://www.ada.gov/filing_complaint.htm#1.