Urban Challenges: Traversing Pittsburgh can be tough for those with disabilities | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Urban Challenges: Traversing Pittsburgh can be tough for those with disabilities

"One of the things we're stuck with from our historical legacy is we have lots of buildings and streets that were built before accessibility was a consideration."

For Squirrel Hill resident Paul O'Hanlon, traversing city streets in the winter months comes with an extra set of challenges. A trip over Pittsburgh's crumbling sidewalks and pothole-ridden streets carries added danger when these same streets and sidewalks are covered with snow and ice.

"Winter is long in Pittsburgh," says O'Hanlon, who uses a wheelchair. "It has a way of keeping me in the house, because if people don't shovel their walks, I just can't get around."

Of the many barriers to accessibility in the city, snow is one the city can control. The city's snow-removal ordinance requires property owners to clear their sidewalks of snow and ice within 24 hours, and residents can be fined if they don't comply.

Other challenges, though, are more difficult to address. In a city like Pittsburgh, with its outdated infrastructure, increasing accessibility is often a game of catch-up that requires upgrading existing structures and systems, many of which fall outside of the city's jurisdiction

As a member of the City-County Task Force on Disabilities, O'Hanlon has been working on these issues for more than a decade

"When we started, Downtown had almost no curb cuts on the sidewalks, so there's been an enormous change since then, but there's always more work to do," says O'Hanlon. "One of the things we're stuck with from our historical legacy is we have lots of buildings and streets that were built before accessibility was a consideration."

One of the greatest challenges to accessibility in Pittsburgh cited both by the task force and respondents to a recent accessibility survey is businesses with one-step barriers

"When you go to some neighborhoods, for example Bloomfield, there's a high concentration of businesses that have what we call a one-step barrier," O'Hanlon says. "That one step at the entryway is enough of a step that I can't get up it with my wheelchair."

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, business owners must remove physical barriers that are achievable "without much difficulty or expense." But ensuring private businesses comply doesn't fall under the purview of the city, and complaints must be made to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

"The city is not in the position to enforce ADA. All we can do is advise," says city ADA coordinator Richard Meritzer. "We are not in a position to enforce any of the federal laws."

What the city can do is implement programs like its One-Step Project, which helps expedite and streamline the process of renovating buildings. The city helps by pre-approving renovation plans and waiving city fees

"I think we've taken nice steps so far, but it still seems like we haven't changed many of those businesses from having one-step barriers to no-step barriers," says O'Hanlon. "We're not helping fund those renovations and maybe we should."

Chris Noschese, another member of the task force, believes the city could help increase accessibility if the ADA office kept records of which buildings don't meet accessibility requirements

"I'm not talking about penalizing businesses and companies," says Noschese. "I just think it would be better for someone buying an old building to know that there is an ADA issue there. Owners have been leaving it alone and leaving it up to buyers to bring these buildings up to date and up to code."

Another way the city has helped increase building accessibility is by passing a visitability ordinance, which provides a tax write-off for newly constructed homes built without a step in the entry way. Homeowners can also get a write-off for renovating their homes to make them more accessible

"If you look around at most homes in your neighborhood, it seems that virtually every house in Pittsburgh has steps leading into it," O'Hanlon says. "Most of the people I'm friends with, I can't go into their homes. So much of what we do as a society happens in our homes, so for people with mobility impairments, that's kind of isolating."

But even though the city's visitability ordinance was passed in 2004, the actual Residential Visitability Tax Credit Program wasn't rolled out until 2008. Today, the city's ADA compliance officer works to ensure more people are taking advantage of the program.

While progress has been made in making the city and county more physically accessible, O'Hanlon says inaccessibility persists, especially for people who are deaf, hard of hearing or blind. The task force's latest mission is to increase accessibility at the airport

"At the airport, there are so many announcements, so much is happening that's audible, there's not a good equivalent system for people who are deaf and hard of hearing," O'Hanlon says. "Lots of people talk about missing gate reassignments."

While city government can't address all of the area's accessibility issues, the $30 million 2015 capital budget does present an opportunity for advocates to increase accessibility in city infrastructure. In a survey of 50 individuals conducted by the Accessibility Meetup group, respondents listed increased handicap parking, smooth sidewalks, maintained curb cuts and audible traffic lights as ways funding could be used to improve accessibility

"A lot of people had comments about intersections and sidewalks, which present different challenges and dangers to people depending on their disabilities," says Gabe McMorland, one of the Accessibility Meetup's founders. "The difference between the things we should be spending money on and the amount of money the city has is staggering. There's a sense of urgency about everything. These things might seem low on the list, but I think if sidewalk conditions are affecting someone's ability to get somewhere, then that's important."

In addition to championing for accessibility projects in the capital budget, the Accessibility Meetup is also working to make accessibility in Pittsburgh a top priority. Instead of having accessibility be an afterthought, advocates want accessibility to be a fixture in every new development throughout the city

"It's pretty common to talk about how environmentally sustainable something is," says McMorland. "So, we just want that same kind of broad awareness for accessibility. Whenever someone's designing a building or a city streetscape, then it's got to be accessible."

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