Citizens endangered by lack of user-friendly streets (unprinted omission included)

Read the Original Article in the Clarion Ledger: Citizens endangered by lack of user-friendly streets

By Scott M. Crawford PhD

In March, 2009, Metro Jackson mourned the loss of James Smith, who was hit while travelling in his motorized wheelchair in the breakdown lane of Medgar Evers Boulevard.

Three years later, with the deaths of Powell Calhoun and Donna Williams, many may wonder: “Why were they in the street with a wheelchair?”

The answer is simple. Our society hasn’t yet decided to build and maintain roadways that are safe for all its users, including vulnerable ones like bicyclists and pedestrians, and especially those with disabilities.

As growth moved to suburbs, rather than embrace mass transit, our culture insists on building wider roads and expensive overpasses to convenience motorists that often travel alone.

Little or no attention was paid to the equity of spending this much money and public land on one segment of the population (motorists) to the exclusion of another, more vulnerable one (pedestrians/bicyclists).

The forces vulnerable citizens to take risks they would rather avoid. Simply going to the grocery store is life threatening for many in wheelchairs who do not have the option of walking in the grass or over broken sections of sidewalk. Donna spoke about this problem with at least one of our Jackson City Council members. She encouraged us to keep up the struggle for full implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

ADA was signed 22 years ago as a sweeping civil rights law that called for a period of transition into fully accessible programs and services (e.g., sidewalks/bus stops/buildings) with a deadline of no later than 1995 (17 years ago).

Many jurisdictions have yet to fully comply.

Simple accommodations like sidewalks with curb ramps, automatic door openers, and information provided in Braille or audio allow people with disabilities to take care of themselves, rather than depend upon the charity of others.

Recognizing that our Declaration of Independence defines all of us as “created equal”, the Jackson’s City Council passed an ordinance several years ago allowing pedestrians, including those in mobility devices, “full and equal access” to our roadways.

Mr. Smith, Mr. Powell, and Ms. Williams had every right as tax-paying citizens to be on the streets when they were killed (yes, even those on disability pay sales taxes).

Lest readers think these are simply isolated incidents, consider the fact that in the first decade of the 21st century, there were more than 47,700 pedestrian deaths on America’s roadways, the equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing every month for an entire decade.

Media attention for disasters like this would be intense, and the public outcry would be enormous.

Are not pedestrian deaths on our streets at least as avoidable as plane crashes?

Aren’t those individuals on bicycles, walking, and riding wheelchairs at least as valuable as those driving automobiles or flying?

Some may say that sidewalks “everywhere” is unrealistic. Of course! That’s why the Federal Highway Administration developed guidelines designating streets with the highest traffic for sidewalks. Moreover, when city officials complained that it would be “too expensive” to survey all of Jackson’s streets, volunteers went out in their wheelchairs and conducted a survey themselves to make compliance easier. That was four years ago.

We in the disability community are still waiting for those accessible bus stops and sidewalks.

Read the Final Paragraph Here (orginally omitted for print space limitation)
Occasionally, people call us from out-of-state asking, “How is the struggle going for ADA implementation?” We tell them the truth: ‘We are just now getting started, twenty-two years late.” As Mississippians we all have a vested interest in our Capital City’s reputation both in-state and around the country. This is a story that is unfolding around us and we will write the ending together. Will it be yet another story about how Mississippi lags behind the rest of the country in the area of civil rights, or will we change course? If we work together, adjust our priorities, and begin to value all our citizens equally; this could be a story about redemption. Which will it be? Sadly, it won’t be soon enough for James Smith, Donna Williams, and Powell Calhoun. Will it be soon enough for the rest of us?