Sidewalks become battlegrounds

  • October 30, 2009
  • Bruce Bromley

JACKSON, Miss. — The nation’s crumbling sidewalks have disabled residents taking their wheelchairs to the streets, a potentially dangerous practice that has cash-strapped cities and disability-rights advocates at odds over how to fix the problem.

Cities across the nation are dealing with eroding sidewalks that do not meet standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the ADA, state and local governments cannot discriminate against the disabled in providing “services, programs or activities,” including access to sidewalks.

Although there are no specific statistics on the number of accidents involving wheelchairs in streets, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, disability was a factor in 617 pedestrian traffic fatalities last year.

Disabled residents here take their lives in their hands getting from point A to point B, says Scott Crawford, a disability-rights advocate.

In March, James Smith, 68, was killed when an SUV, struck by another vehicle, plowed into his motorized wheelchair on Medgar Evers Boulevard, one of Jackson’s main thoroughfares.

Where they exist, the sidewalks often are in such disrepair as to be impassible to people in wheelchairs, says Crawford, leaving the roadway as the only other option.

“I’ve been beeped at and honked at and cussed at,” by motorists, he says.

Lois Thibault, coordinator of research for the U.S. Access Board, a federal agency that provides guidance to local governments on ADA issues, said Jackson is in the same boat with a lot of cities that for years stalled spending federal dollars on sidewalks to spend money on roads.

“It’s deferred maintenance,” she said. “We’ve been so focused on new construction that we’ve let the maintenance go.”

Crawford is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit aimed at getting the city to comply with ADA standards by making sidewalks, bus stops and other public areas accessible to the disabled. The Justice Department has joined in the lawsuit.

In the past 10 years, the Justice Department has inked settlement agreements of ADA complaints with dozens of cities as part of a push called Project Civic Access, an effort to ensure cities eliminate physical and communication barriers for people with disabilities.


In California, state officials are fighting a federal class-action lawsuit filed by disability-rights advocates who want thousands of wheelchair ramps installed along 2,500 miles of sidewalks on state roads across the state. Mary-Lee Kimber, staff attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, a non-profit law firm representing the plaintiffs, said the two sides are working toward a settlement after a judge last month halted the trial to allow more negotiations. If the state loses, it faces potentially billions of dollars in sidewalk-repair costs.

In Arlington, Texas, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in June that two disabled residents could proceed with a lawsuit against the city over the condition of its sidewalks. John Nevins, attorney for residents Richard Frame and Wendell Decker, said his clients, who are disabled, sued because they could not access the sidewalks in their wheelchairs, keeping them from getting to medical and city services.

In Columbia, Mo., the City Council last week passed an ordinance making it a misdemeanor for motorists to harass disabled people in the public rights of way. Mayor Darwin Hindman said the language for wheelchairs and walkers was added to an existing law for bicyclists to protect “more vulnerable classes” of pedestrians.

“As with most cities, we have a certain number of deteriorated sidewalks that are not suitable for wheelchairs,” Hindman said.

Jackson Councilman Kenneth Stokes said the ultimate solution is for the city to fix the sidewalks. In the meantime, Stokes sponsored a measure that passed this month requiring wheelchairs to have reflectors or a blinking light if disabled residents intend to use them in the street after dark.