Creating A Mobility Friendly City, Your Guide to Access and Advocacy in 2018

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18.2 million American adults find it difficult or impossible to walk a quarter of a mile. Almost 40 million adults in the U.S. have some type of challenge when it comes to functioning physically. The U.S. brims with opportunities for employment, fulfillment and adventure. However, what good are those prospects if they’re impossible to access?

Major Challenges To Scooter Or Wheelchair Users

A 2017 survey found that 20 percent of people contend with a barrier that limits their mobility at least once a day. Your city’s quaint historic district may be lined with bumpy, and potentially dangerous, cobblestone streets. Local buses might not have lifts that let you board with a wheelchair. Here are some other barriers to people with disabilities:

Inaccessible Homes

The majority of people who live in the U.S. have steps leading up to their homes. If you have a disability, you could install a ramp. However, many landlords or homeowner associations don’t allow modifications. If they do, you may not be able to afford the cost of making your home mobility friendly.

Unsafe Sidewalks

Dangerously steep hills can deter anyone. However, if the sidewalk in those areas is damaged, getting around can be even harder. Uplifted sidewalks can pose a hazard even on level streets.

Narrow Thruways

Aisles in retail stores and other public settings should be wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs. Many people say that these avenues are often too narrow or blocked with boxes and other items that prevent them from getting through.

All-Around Accessibility

Creating accessibility isn’t just about making it easier to get around physically. Some other topics that are important to people with disabilities are:

  • Making technology available to people who could use it
  • Improving medication labels for the visually impaired
  • Making websites, especially employment sites, more accessible
  • Creating maps with accessible routes for pedestrians
  • Developing protocols for informing officials about areas that need repair

Understanding Disability Rights Laws

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, it is illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities. This piece of civil rights legislation also guarantees people with disabilities the same opportunities as others in order to take part in mainstream life.

That includes:

  • Employment opportunities
  • Purchasing goods and services
  • Participating in government programs and services on the state and local levels

The Fair Housing Act, or FHA, also helps protect people with disabilities. It provides equitable housing for every American regardless of their medical status or any other demographics. Under the act, landlords must grant requests for reasonable accommodations and make practical modifications if necessary.

ADA Guidelines for Apartments

Many people encounter obstacles when they try to get in and around their homes. If you rent, you may experience different challenges than those who own their houses.

The rules for handicap accessibility in apartments vary depending on the date of construction. If the building was erected before 1990, when the ADA was signed into law, the landlord or building managers have to follow different regulations.

Pre-ADA apartment complex managers must remove barriers that prevent access to public spaces. However, the modifications must be “technically reasonable and readily achievable.” This means that the alterations must be affordable and relatively simple to implement. Because that’s not often the case, apartments that were built before 1990 may still not be ADA compliant.

Post-ADA apartments are required to be completely compliant with ADA guidelines. Entrances and exits to public areas must be easy for disabled people to use.

Public areas include:

  • Rental offices
  • Public restrooms
  • Recreational facilities

Retail Stores

The Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund details the ways in which retail stores are required to support people of all abilities. A retail establishment can’t deny entry to someone with a guide dog or disability.

Accessible parking must be created if it’s readily feasible. There’s a formula for determining the number of handicap spaces that are necessary depending on the size and location of the store. If this is not easily achievable, the retail establishment must provide as many spaces as it can within dimensions that are as close to the requirements as possible.

Curb ramps, or curb cuts, help people who use wheelchairs or scooters get from the parking lot or street to the sidewalk. If the store owns the sidewalk, the property owners are responsible for modifying the sidewalk. If a store is on a city street, the municipality must make the changes.

Retail stores must make one entrance accessible for people with mobility challenges. This doesn’t have to involve the construction of a complex ramp. In most situations, ramping the steps is readily achievable.

If possible, ramps should be permanent. They must also be safe. If a portable ramp is used, an intercom or doorbell must be available so that the customers can call for help when they need to use it.

One of the problems many people face when shopping is that the aisles aren’t wide enough to get through comfortably. Unfortunately, widening the aisles is not considered to be readily achievable if it diminishes the amount of selling space.

Getting Your Landlord To Accommodate Your Disability

It’s illegal for a landlord to ignore your request for modifications. All private residences are guided by ADA regulations regardless of their construction date. Your landlord is required by law to listen to your appeal for alterations. However, he or she can still reject them if they are considered too expensive or complicated to carry out.

For example, it might not be possible for a building owner to install an elevator to help you access your apartment. However, creating specific parking spaces or reserving properties on the ground floor for people with mobility issues is easy to do.

The Difference Between Modifications And Accommodations

Modifications are physical changes that are made to buildings to make them more accessible for people with disabilities. These might include building a ramp or installing an elevator. These tend to be costly, and you might be up against some barriers if you request an expensive conversion.

An accommodation is a change to a policy or procedure. In many cases, making accommodations is completely free. If excessive cost is necessary to make the accommodation, the FHA has the right to refuse it.

Don’t let your landlord make you pay for an accommodation that requires no cost to implement. For example, you should not have to pay a pet fee for your service dog. If motorized vehicles are prohibited in public areas, you shouldn’t be charged for bringing your wheelchair there.

Who Pays For It?

If your landlord does agree to make the requested changes to accommodate your needs, you might wonder who is responsible for footing the bill. Unfortunately, you are generally responsible for the cost associated with modifications for disabilities.

This is the case whether you’re asking for a change to be made in a public area or inside the walls of your private dwelling. You might even have to pay to restore the property back to its original state once you move.

Costs involved in altering a property for someone with a disability can include paying for raw materials and compensating the contractors. If you’ve asked for an accommodation, the landlord may try to charge you for costs associated with the time and process necessary to implement it.

Federally financed rental residences are exempt from this rule. Landlords who run subsidized housing must pay for tenants’ reasonable modifications. State rules vary. Your state may also require building owners and managers to cover the costs of alterations.

Accessibility In The Workplace

The ADA requires employers to follow certain accessibility guidelines, which are similar to those of property owners and landlords. The United States Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs has regulations for outreach and recruitment regulations, helping people of all abilities gain employment.

Qualified job applicants and employees are entitled to reasonable accommodations when it comes to accessibility in the workplace. This may involve adapting the work environment so that the employee can be more efficient. It may also include modifying the work itself.

People with disabilities can also ask their employers to provide them with assistive technologies, like screen readers for computers that are used by the visually impaired. The Job Accommodation Network gives individuals resources to help them learn what options they have and how to ask for an accommodation. The organization doesn’t help people find employment, but it helps them make working more convenient and equitable for people with disabilities.

What About Moving Around Town?

Being independent is important for people with disabilities. However, if signs or elevator buttons don’t have braille on them or public transportation isn’t wheelchair accessible, it can be hard for people with mobility concerns to get around.

Getting Out

You don’t need to stay cooped up inside your home until changes are made. If you want to take advantage of everything that your town has to offer, there are a few tips and tricks that can help get you there.

Plan Ahead

Planning ahead may be the most crucial thing that you can do if you want to take it to the streets. Instead of relying on the mantra, “My town isn’t mobility friendly,” do some digging. By now, you will have most certainly come up with some alternatives.

You may want to skip the parts of town that are filled with stairs and hills.

What Makes A City Mobility Friendly?

Some factors, like weather, can’t be changed. However, mobility-friendly cities have accessible and affordable housing, accessible transportation and strong advocacy, according to New Mobility. The magazine listed Denver as the top mobility friendly city. Its public transportation system is fully accessible, unlike that of New York City, which only features handicap accessibility in one in four subway stations.

However, if you work in Manhattan, you’re protected under the New York State Human Rights Law as well and New York City Human Rights Law as well as the ADA. Each type of legislation defines a disability slightly differently, but the NYCHRL definition is the broadest. This makes it easier to recover damages if you feel like you’ve been the victim of disability discrimination in New York City.

How To Make A Difference

Public awareness of the problem is the first step in making cities more mobility friendly. People who don’t have disabilities may not realize the extent of the problem. Educating them and getting help to advocate for your needs will allow you to increase your accessibility within the place you live.

Many people believe that Americans with disabilities are automatically taken care of under the ADA. This isn’t true. There are still many obstacles to smooth mobility for many people. The ADA is still being perfected, and making sure that it covers important issues and is properly enforced is up to you.

According to Access Advocates, people who have encountered a barrier to mobility have legal standing in Federal Court litigation. In 2014, the Justice Department settled with a bus company in Virginia that didn’t have adequate accessibility in its public bus system.

The transit company didn’t make accessible buses available for every route. It required people with mobility concerns to provide advanced notice before taking a trip. The organization had not trained employees on accessibility requirements. This all changed because somebody spoke up.


Advocating for yourself and your needs can be daunting. You might not know where to start.

Access Advocates works with individuals with disabilities to make sure that they can access professional services. The company is recognized by the United States Department of Justice for managing Federal Compliance concerns. Access Advocates helps make buildings more accessible for people with disabilities.

If someone complains to Access Advocates about ADA non-compliance, the company conducts an audit of the company in question. The audit is shared with the person in charge, and suggestions for compliance are recommended. The organization works with federal judges to make sure that changes are carried out.

This service is free for people with disabilities. All you have to do is bring your complaint to the company.

Access Advocates was created after founder Hank Falstad realized that even two decades after the ADA was signed, 90 percent of buildings were still not compliant. The company’s experienced engineers and architects specialize in ADA compliance audits. Access Advocates comes up with complete plans and solutions to make buildings more accessible.

In some cases, one strong advocate helps create change in communities. For example, Roger Sparks filed a civil suit in Peoria, Illinois. He cited the inaccessibility within City Hall for people in wheelchairs.

Sparks found it difficult to get around the city. As a member of the mayor’s Advisory Committee for Citizens with Disabilities, he had trouble getting into the only wheelchair accessible restroom during meetings. The meetings lasted into the evening, and the restroom could only be opened with a key. The key resided in an administrative office, which closed at 5 p.m.

Three years after filing the suit, the courts settled in favor of Sparks. Although the city installed wheelchair ramps in City Hall and improved the bathroom situation, Sparks still felt like many spaces in the city weren’t wheelchair friendly.

The sidewalks were often blocked. Those that weren’t were falling apart.

Sparks has opened up a conversation about mobility with the local government. In fact, he has asked officials to use him as a consultant when implementing changes to help people of all abilities.

If you have experienced a situation like this, the best thing to do is to bring it to the attention of the local government. Make it known every time you have to deal with a barrier to your mobility in town. Ask your friends to help advocate for better accessibility too. The squeaky wheel gets the oil.

Expos And Conventions

Consider meeting other people in the disability community at fairs, expos and conventions devoted to the subject matter. The Abilities Expo that took place in Chicago in the summer of 2016 had an Abilities Meet Up Zone, a dedicated area where peers could connect.

The area gave people a chance for further engagement. When you pool multiple voices together, you might have a better chance of making change.


A number of outreach organizations exist to help people with disabilities live higher quality lives. The VoteWithHeart movement is a nonpartisan project that educates voters about situations that are close to the hearts of people with disabilities. When you register, you join the coalition to receive information on vital legislation and actions that have to do with the cause. The more than 50 million people with disabilities who live in the U.S. can make their voices heard when they come together.

Global Accessibility Awareness Day, or GAAD, takes place annually on the third Thursday in May. The event is focused on making digital technology better available for people of all abilities. Although this is a global event that isn’t restricted to accessibility within the local community, it’s a great way to raise awareness of the issues that people with disabilities face. The more people you reach with events like this, the more your local government may take notice of related issues in the community.

Creative Thinking And Technology

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette remarks that it takes more than installing automatic doors and wheelchair ramps to cater to people of all abilities. The author of the article questioned whether Pittsburgh’s abundance of technology brainpower could come together to knock down barriers for people with disabilities throughout the world.

Monthly Accessibility Meetups in the city are open to anyone, including people who like to think outside the box to solve problems. Those who attend the sessions hope to bring up the level of accessibility compliance in the city. They indicate that the ADA is geared toward minimal compliance. It’s not enough.

Looking for a similarly themed meetup in your area can help you advocate for change. If a group does not exist, consider creating one.

Tips And Tricks For Making Change

Once you have made your cause visible, you have to make a case for the change you’re requesting. In many instances, officials are more likely to pay attention when you’re persuasive.

Become An Expert

If you’re passionate about changing your community, learn everything you can about the accessibility situation in your community. It helps to make connections with peers and leaders. Find out what problems other people are having. Stay up-to-date on legislation so that you know what’s going on.

Make A Case

Can making a change save money or legal headaches? Can it help people get more done in less time? In the workplace, accessible technology can improve productivity. It can also help organizations retain good talent and cut costs.

Start with the items that are easier to change. Proposing massive alterations to the city’s infrastructure right off the bat will only result in people trying to ignore you. Suggesting accommodations that can be effortlessly implemented will help you get your foot in the door and get the ball rolling.

Be The Leader

You can be the one to step up when no one else is doing so. Set yourself up as the point of contact. A liaison between government officials and citizens is necessary to get and keep things moving.
Keep the conversation with your community open. Record ideas, thoughts and suggestions that come from others who are seeking change. Set up a schedule or protocol to bring those initiatives to the powers that be.

Remember that you do not have to make everything change at once. Doing a little bit every day, week or month can keep the conversation flowing. Small modifications made consistently can result in big changes down the road. If you involve yourself in the movement to make your community more mobility friendly, as a leader or a participant, you can make your voice heard and help guide the way that things happen.

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