A Difficult Path
The streets of Providence can be a challenge to negotiate, even for those who know the city. But if you're trying to do it in a wheelchair the path can be both difficult - and dangerous. This week Jim Hummel finds the city has largely ignored an order from the federal government to make its sidewalks accessible to the handicapped, failing to make changes officials promised to make more than a decade ago.
Downtown Providence can be a challenge to negotiate, even for those who come here on a regular basis.
But for those trying to get around the city in a wheelchair, the degree of difficulty becomes daunting. A Vietnam vet who is a double amputee and confined to a wheelchair contacted the Hummel Report last month saying the city is not complying with federal law mandating handicapped access on its streets.
So we took a tour of our own and found a tale of two cities: The newer areas, like Kennedy Plaza or the walkway near the river are a dream: smooth and graded to code.
Much of the rest of the city - including the entire stretch of South Main leading from (Route) 195 to the courthouse, a nightmare, with no curb cuts and in one case granite curbing nearly nine inches from the ground - making it virtually impassable for anyone in a wheelchair.
Across from Providence City Hall this light pole was installed directly in the path of what would have been an acceptable curb cut.
The corner of Peck and Pine may be the worst. Each of the four corners has an obstruction - from this fire hydrant to uneven curb cuts on the remaining corners.
Then there's the sidewalk outside federal court - where these post-911 barriers partially block the curb cuts put in during renovations several years ago.
Hummel: ``Many of the complaints about handicapped access make their way here, to the Governor's Commission on Disabilities, where the head of the department knows first-hand the challenges of being in a wheelchair.''
Bob Cooper has been an advocate for nearly three decades and hailed passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in the 1990s. What he's witnessed, though, are communities like Providence way out of compliance.
Hummel: ``How do you react to that personally?''
Cooper: ``By this point no longer with anger. A lot of disappointment, frustration - because we've gone through multiple administrations on the city and state level. Everybody promises they're going to address this and six months down the road those promises are worthless.''
In fact the city of Providence signed a consent decree more than a decade ago, during the Cianci Administration, as part of an investigation into a wide variety of problems by the U.S. Justice Department. The city agreed to put in curb cuts within three years.
Cooper: ``All of the deadlines for fixing the problems at the outset, are still problems.
We've gone through one complete administration with actually no progress at all.''
Cooper said the feds got renewed complaints last year after the Cicilline administration had eight years in office but did not meet its end of the bargain.
Cooper: ``The Department of Justice came back with a team that re-visited all of the problems they had identified in the consent decree and found no progress at all on almost their entire list.''
Hummel: ``At what point does the federal government need to step up and say: `` Hey, we've heard enough talk, let's see some action?''
Cooper: ``You'd certainly think 10 years down the road anybody's definition of `moving with all deliberate speed' would have been met. I find the federal government reluctant to pull the trigger because essentially the weapon they have is withdrawing all federal funds and ordering the state to withdraw and withhold all state funds. I think that's part of the problem is all they have is a cannon.''
Mayor Angel Taveras issued a statement to the Hummel Report that says: ``The Department of Public Works makes intersections ADA-compliant whenever it rebuilds or resurfaces roads and sidewalks. Everyone deserves to travel the city with ease. The Taveras administration takes ADA compliance seriously and will consider what can be done to remove barriers and improve access across the city.''
In fact, we found the city and state are putting in ADA-compliant sidewalks for all new construction, like this stimulus project near the federal building on Westminster Street. The contractor is leveling the grade, which is significant.
Where there are no curb cuts sometimes the road is the only option, but winter has left many streets looking like this. And Cooper says being out in the road is a danger for other reasons.
Cooper: ``An SUV or a pickup truck's hood may be higher than your head. So you're stuck out in traffic, invisible to a number of the drivers because you're shorter the hood of their vehicle. There are places that are extremely dangerous. And those are the ones where there is a curb cut on one side and when you get across the street to the other side you discover there's no way to get back up onto the sidewalk and you're stuck out in traffic.''
Cooper said the General Assembly passed a bill last year mandating that both ends of a cross walk have curb cuts, something he thought would be common sense.
And Cooper gives this perspective to those of us who have never had to navigate Providence in a wheelchair.
Cooper: ``It's similar to Blacks before the civil rights era where you needed to know during the day where you might find a bathroom that said `colored.' You need to know before you start your day how you're going to get through your day before you start a trip. How you are going to get to point X if you know there are three or four crosswalks between where you might be parking or where you get off the bus to get to your destination and realize many of the destinations you can't through safely.''
In Providence, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.