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By wheelchair, Cedar Rapids faces long road to accessibility

Despite millions in fixes, some worry city was let off ADA hook too soon

Phil Hayes of Cedar Rapids (right) and his wife, Marilyn (left), on Wednesday cross 12th Avenue SE. Phil Hayes is among those concerned the U.S. Department of Justice has closed its settlement agreement with Cedar Rapids before the city has finished the public projects it was required to do to come into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Phil Hayes of Cedar Rapids (right) and his wife, Marilyn (left), on Wednesday cross 12th Avenue SE. Phil Hayes is among those concerned the U.S. Department of Justice has closed its settlement agreement with Cedar Rapids before the city has finished the public projects it was required to do to come into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Inconveniences many people step over or around without a second thought — unlevel sidewalk panels, crumbling concrete, tall curbs, cars parked across pathways, gaps in sidewalks, steep slopes and more — can prove jarring, disruptive, dangerous or full-blown barriers for Phil Hayes when using his wheelchair.

Born without bones in his right leg, and arms that never developed, the 60-year-old Cedar Rapids man has figured out how to overcome obstacles many able-bodied people would never imagine. He goes for treks around the neighborhood, to downtown, Greene Square, medical appointments and elsewhere with his wife, Marilyn, 59, often following on a bike. Public transit is a regular option for Lindale Mall and other stores. The family doesn’t have a car.

“There are a lot of improvements here, but there’s a lot of things nobody is doing anything about,” he said. “There are more and more people with disabilities getting out — I’ve always gotten out — but we see more people with disabilities on the street now and that is something the city has to think about.”

While the world around him has gotten a bit easier to navigate over time, particularly in his hometown where some $18 million has been invested over the past four years to address accessibility compliance as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, it’s still far from easy for people with disabilities, he said.

Count Hayes among those irritated the U.S. Department of Justice last month closed its ADA compliance case against Cedar Rapids, and worried city officials won’t follow through with a checklist of projects from a 2015 settlement agreement to bring the city into compliance.

The case was closed despite estimates the city has at least three more years and $16 million worth of work to complete as outlined in the settlement agreement.

“The main concern is there has been a lot of progress made, but when the federal government relinquished its responsibility, the city can slow down making improvements for those with disabilities,” said Ann Hearn, 66, treasurer of Peer Action Disability Support, or PADS, a local advocacy group.

COMMITTED TO COMPLETING LIST

City leaders say they are proud of the work that has been completed in a relatively short time frame, but they recognize more work remains.

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They vow a commitment to completing the list on the same timeline, and pushing further once that is done. They have incorporated ADA standards into capital improvement processes and early stages of design, and will continue to use an ADA audit specialist.

“What we’ve learned through this process is you can get it right,” said April Wing, the Cedar Rapids ADA coordinator. “We view the DOJ closing the file as essentially them taking our training wheels off. They are saying, “We know you know how to get it right, and you will.’”

Cedar Rapids was one of more than 200 local governments the Justice Department targeted as part of Project Civic Access, an effort to eliminate physical and communication barriers in city infrastructure, facilities and programs and bring communities into compliance with the 29-year-old law.

Hearn and others can outline a laundry list of places where people still struggle, and say they plan to make their voice heard to urge the city to stay on task.

NOT PEDESTRIAN FRIENDLY ‘AT ALL’

Many crosswalk lights are too quick for some people with disabilities to get across the street safely, Hearn said.

Luvoria Duckett, 47, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, noted the crossing near the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel on First Avenue SE downtown is supposed to activate with warning lights when a pedestrian enters. But it doesn’t detect her chair.

“This town is notorious for not being pedestrian friendly at all,” Hearn said.

Mark Cross, another PADS members, said, “When I cross the crosswalk there are cars that go in front of me like I am not even there.”

Catherine Hafsi, PADS president, added when she is in the cross walk, “people yell at you or flip you off.”

Obstacles, of course, extend beyond public works the city is responsible for and can include more frustrations on private property.

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When Duckett arrives home, for instance, she must navigate two separate doors into her apartment building on C Street SW. The first isn’t a problem, but the second requires a manual key, which is a challenge. A swipe card would make it more accessible for her, she said.

“They’ve looked at it over the years and made changes,” Duckett said of the landlord, “but they keep putting it back the way it was.”

Last week, Phil Hayes toured around downtown in his motorized chair while Marilyn Hayes pushed a manual one.

They were going to an appointment to get the wheelchairs examined at UnityPoint-St. Luke’s Hospital. Phil Hayes’ left leg powers his manual wheelchair. His toes and left heel control the joy stick and display buttons on his motorized one. A dowel wrapped in American flag stickers sits in a cylindrical holder on the motorized chair near his chest, which he can pick up with his mouth to push buttons, such as for an elevator.

Within a block of his house, Hayes points out where several neighbors have been assessed by the city for sidewalk panel replacements, but the sidewalk through the city-owned alley remains crumbled. Cracked sidewalk also is found along city land at 12th Ave SE and Otis Road. Sidewalks in poor condition can be jarring and painful to move across, he said.

At several street crossings, a curb cut is available on one side but not the other, leaving Hayes to wheel down the street until he can find another one or a driveway.

At the newly installed roundabout at Fifth Street and 16th Avenue SE near St. Wenceslaus Church, sidewalks go partially around. But at the narrowest part of the road, the sidewalk dumps off into the roadway where Phil and Marilyn must navigate in traffic. City leaders noted the sidewalks were not continued due to uncertainty about future development, but they eventually will be added.

CAN BE HARD TO FIND WHO’S RESPONSIBLE

The litany of complaints don’t fit into a neat category.

Sometimes the city is responsible but the deficiency is not in violation of the ADA because the infrastructure or facility was in place before the 1990 law was adopted.

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While completing what’s on the list is the top priority for the city, it would be required to retrofit those earlier projects only if it were doing work on a road or building, for example, that directly touched the deficiency.

Sometimes it’s a private party or business.

Jacob A. Schunk, assistant U.S. attorney and civil chief in the Northern District of Iowa, said his office proactively attempts to enforce ADA compliance in the private sector. In the past four years, staff have conducted 60 ADA compliance reviews at health care facilities, restaurants, stores, housing facilities and hotels.

“Our office initiated most of those reviews, although a small portion arose from external sources or complaints,” he said in an email. “While the department is generally authorized to commence a civil action in United States District Court to enforce ADA compliance through injunctive relief, monetary damages, and civil penalties, these reviews typically result in voluntary compliance agreements where the entities agree to move into compliance within a set time frame.”

Citizens can file complaints directly at www.Justice.gov/usao-ndia/civil-rights-ada.

CITY PLANS $8.5M ANNUALLY FOR FIXES

City officials expect completing the project list from the settlement agreement over the next three years, or by the end of calendar 2022.

The city is budgeting $8.5 million per year paid through bonds to cover ADA compliance work in fiscal 2020 and 2021.

In fiscal 2020, which starts Monday, projects include completing about half of the remaining 1,400 curb cuts on the list that originally included 4,000, retrofitting parks in the northeast and northwest quadrants, and also the downtown and Ladd libraries and Paramount Theatre. The city forecasts parks in the other two quadrants, the remaining curb cuts, transit facilities and fire stations as work in the fiscal 2021 budget.

The city has identified an additional 7,000 curb cuts it says need to be retrofitted or installed citywide beyond the settlement agreement list. The city doesn’t have a specific budget or timeline for addressing these, but once the curb cuts from the agreement are completed, city officials intend to start tackling those on an annual basis.

The city has a priority list for what to complete first, but public input carries sway and can get a project bumped up the list, said Brenna Fall, the city capital improvement program manager. People can file complaints through the city website — Cedar-Rapids.org — and searching “sidewalk concern.”

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Chris Myers, chairman of the city’s ADA advisory committee, plans to continue to meet and advise the city on ADA needs. He said the city has been diligent and he believes leaders will keep their focus.

“The DOJ decision is a little worrisome,” Myers said. “While I have faith and believe Cedar Rapids will continue to complete the list and ensure they continue to work on accessibility, it makes me worry other cities may not be willing to finish the plan if they were put in the same situation.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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