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Disability Rights Advocates Sue Baltimore For Accessible Sidewalks, Streets

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Emily Sullivan/WYPR
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An inaccessible sidewalk in the North Baltimore neighborhood of Remington. Disability rights advocates are suing the city for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates that public rights-of-way are accessible to those with mobility impairments.

Susan Goodlaxson always wondered why so many Baltimoreans pushed their wheelchairs down city streets instead of the sidewalk. When she began using a wheelchair at age 60, she realized why.

“Most sidewalks here are crumbling and you can go blocks without curb cuts,” she said. “My intention was to continue to be a fully independent adult and move around and take care of things without needing assistance. And that proved to be impossible.”

That’s why Goodlaxson, along with several other city residents who use wheelchairs and the IMAGE Center of Maryland, filed a class action suit against Baltimore for violating the Americans With Disabilities Act, which mandates that public rights-of-way like streets and sidewalks are accessible to those with mobility impairments. The plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages but a plan to rectify the violations.

Cory Warren, an attorney at Disability Rights Maryland, filed the suit in U.S. District Court, along with lawyers from Disability Rights Advocates, Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center and Goldstein, Borgen, Dardarian & Ho.

If the group were to calculate the costs of injuries incurred due to Baltimore’s accessible public spaces, the costs would be enormous, Warren said.

“But that's not what we're hearing from people. It’s ‘Fix the damn sidewalks. We want to participate in our community,’” he said. “We're not filing the suit to make a ton of money, we're filing the suit because we want people to be able to participate as Baltimore residents equally.”

Goodlaxson, now 65, lives in Northeast Baltimore, where she is forced to use her wheelchair in busy streets like Hamilton Ave. due to a lack of curb cuts. There are none on her block either: she can only access the sidewalk outside her home by getting in and out of her car, a process that takes time and leaves her in pain.

“I've asked the city for clear cut outs since I moved into this house. And three years later, I'm still waiting,” Goodlaxson said. “If I had curb cutouts, I could roll across the street and join people [at a neighborhood gathering] and they'd learn who I am. Instead of, ‘Oh, there's that old disabled lady,’ they could say, ‘Oh, there’s Susan, our neighbor.’ I would just like to feel included.”

Three decades after the ADA was passed in 1990, less than 2 percent of Baltimore City sidewalks are accessible, according to a City Department of Transportation draft report.

The report also found that bringing all of Baltimore’s rights-of-way into ADA compliance would cost a minimum of $657 million — more than the city received from the federal government in American Rescue Plan funding.

Goodlaxson said the widespread lack of accessibility makes her feel invisible and unwanted in the city she’s long called home. “I cannot be independent in Baltimore,” she said.

Warren said his group of disability rights advocates first reached out to Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration about their concerns in October. “And once we approached them, it was stalling, stalling, stalling, and eventually we needed to take action,” he said.

After the suit was filed, Scott formed a task force to study the issue. Warren called the action a first step.

“We're hoping for a substantial response, which is, can we get a substantial plan together with deadlines and concrete steps moving forward?” he said.

Baltimore is due to respond to the suit this week.

A spokesman for the Department of Transportation did not respond to requests for comment. Cal Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Brandon Scott did not comment on the suit but said the Democrat is working toward bolstering accessibility.

“Mayor Scott inherited a host of longstanding challenges that his administration is committed to addressing,” Harris told WYPR. “The mayor is focused on building a more accessible Baltimore that values neighbors with disabilities, and urges others to join him in this effort.”

Jed Weeks, the interim executive director of the advocacy group Bikemore, chalked up Baltimore’s rampant inaccessibility to decades of city plans that prioritized cars rather than pedestrians.

“All of our money that we got from the federal government and state government, we've mostly been devoting toward paving our streets for cars instead of fixing up our sidewalks or making our bus stop accessible,” he said. “Structurally, it's just so broken. We have this tremendous tanker to turn around.”

And ongoing projects are contributing to inaccessibility, too, Weeks said.

Complete Streets, a 2018 law, mandates that new rights-of-way construction projects prioritize pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders before prioritizing cars. But that doesn’t always happen: Weeks said that some city contractors who seek to maximize their profits may choose to cut corners, aware that the city does not have enough inspectors to ensure Complete Streets and ADA compliance are followed.

Weeks pointed to the intersection of 25th St. and Maryland Ave., where a recent construction project left the concrete surrounding a vault — the metal entryway to underground utility infrastructure — resembling a speed bump.

“If you're in a wheelchair or using a walker and you approach onto it, you could actually slip and roll backwards,” he said. “This is an example of the city not having enough inspectors to come out and inspect this work as it's being done or people reviewing the plans to ensure that they are in compliance with the ADA.”

A similar lawsuit in Portland, Ore. resulted in the city developing a plan to upgrade more than 16,000 sidewalk ramps at a cost of $113 million over 12 years.

Warren, of Disability Rights Maryland, said the city allowed sidewalk and curb conditions to deteriorate over multiple decades — and that funding the fixes is ultimately Baltimore’s responsibility.

“At the end of the day, what we're looking for is concrete steps forward and actually getting these sidewalks fixed so people can use them,” Warren said.

Weeks suggested Baltimore fund similar projects by first spending Highway Safety Office funding on more traffic enforcement, then setting those proceeds aside. The city also sends money from existing traffic enforcement, such as speed cameras, into the General Fund, where it is spent on a huge variety of city operations. Weeks said the city could instead put that money toward ADA improvements.

Goodlaxson said that her ultimate desire is a simple: a realistic plan that can make Baltimore accessible to everyone, from installing curb cuts that would allow her to attend Artscape to making places of community gathering, such as senior centers, more accessible. As it is now, she said, hospitals are the only place she can navigate without assistance.

“When handicapped people are isolated, it makes them become like the other: ‘They're not like us. We don't relate to them,’” Goodlaxson said. “But we're all just members of the community. We're the same as you and we have a different experience. But it's hard to share that when we can't join you.”

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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