CEDAR RAPIDS — As Catherine Hafsi sees it, catching a Cedar Rapids Kernels game has become a little easier for those with disabilities, thanks to dozens of upgrades — many small enough only those who need it would notice — at Veterans Memorial Stadium in the past year.
For years, the stadium had been violating the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. The law is intended to prevent discrimination of those with disabilities, which cut into the game experience for some such as Hafsi, 52, of Cedar Rapids.
Hafsi, who attends several games a season, uses a walker because of her cerebral palsy, a disease that limits control of muscles, throws off balance and complicates walking.
But after $121,238 worth of accessibility fixes in the past several months, many challenges are gone — seemingly little things such as more space between some seats, less force needed to open a door, lowered counter heights and easier to use bathrooms.
“I have seen improvements being made to the stadium, especially with the women’s bathroom,” Hafsi said. “It’s easier to get to the hand driers where before it was difficult.”
Retrofits at the baseball stadium are part of a changing culture surrounding disabilities in Cedar Rapids sparked by a federal investigation — and a subsequent settlement, local advocates said. Communication has improved, accessibility needs are forethoughts rather than afterthoughts, and meaningful improvements are occurring, they said.
The city is nearing the end of the first of a four-year, $15 million plan to correct hundreds of ADA violations at 32 city-owned sites in accordance with a Sept. 1, 2015, settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. Some $4.2 million of that $15 million is budgeted for 11 consultants in relation to complying with the regulations.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Robin Brunner, a past president and member of Cedar Rapids-based Peer Action Disability Support, said a new ADA advisory committee and ADA coordinator have made it easier to have the voice of those with disabilities heard, and the city has become more “proactive” and “eager” to fix problems when those with disabilities call attention to them.
“The Department of Justice brought it to light and made everyone pay attention, and that is a really good thing,” Brunner said. “More and more of us, we aren’t going to stay away. We are going to participate in the community.”
Cedar Rapids Assistant City Manager Sandi Fowler agreed the settlement has prompted physical changes, but noted staff have long worked “tenaciously” to meet needs, such as a process to request curb ramp upgrades, access to recreation programs and she noted the city hasn’t had any ADA grievances.
“The ability to accommodate persons with disabilities has long been a strong part of our culture of customer service at the city,” she said.
Cedar Rapids was targeted under Project Civic Access, a federal initiative that enforces the disabilities act’s title II focusing on state and local government. So far, the Justice Department has reached settlement agreements with 204 communities in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, according to the department’s Civil Rights Division website.
The agency wouldn’t take questions about why Cedar Rapids was targeted or how required fixes were chosen — Fowler said the city was told it was not complaint-based — but pointed to language from its website.
“Compliance review sites were chosen based upon the department’s desire to visit every state, the population of the site and, in some cases, its proximity to a university or tourist attraction,” the website states. “The majority of the compliance reviews occurred in small cities and towns because they represent the most common form of local government.”
Cedar Rapids is one of only two Iowa cities to be investigated. Des Moines signed a settlement agreement in 2011.
Former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who helped found the ADA law, said in an interview last week the Justice Department has investigated cities for years, so inquiries in Cedar Rapids or Des Moines are not unique. Other cities more quickly incorporated ADA standards and don’t have the “federal government breathing down their necks,” he added.
“If they are taking action against Cedar Rapids and other cities, it’s because they (the cities) have simply been dragging their feet,” Harkin said. “They’ve had all these years to comply ... . It’s a shame more cities didn’t take it onto themselves 27 years ago.”
Harkin said significant progress has been made in the United States, while the biggest barriers remain access to services and programs and accessibility in small communities.
“I hope other Iowa cities and towns follow suit,” said Jane Hudson, executive director of Disability Rights Iowa. “Even though big cities are being targeted by the (Justice Department), there’s a lot of issues in smaller towns with compliance with ADA and places those with disabilities can’t access.”
After being first contacted by the Justice Department in 2011, Cedar Rapids provided an inventory of city properties.
“From that, they culled a representative sample, their choosing, and they absolutely focused on public-facing facilities, places citizens go,” Fowler explained.
The baseball stadium, Cedar Rapids Ice Arena, Bever Park Pool, Tait Cummins Park and Jones Park Golf Course were among those investigated by the justice department.
The Justice Department investigated the sites in 2011, and spent three years developing the settlement agreement proposed in 2014, Fowler said. The two parties negotiated for a year, primarily figuring out reasonable timelines for completing the various violations, before finalizing the agreement last September, she said.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Each violation in the inventory has different time increments — six months, a year, 18 months, 30 months, etc. — for how long Cedar Rapids has to meet compliance. Within the four-year settlement window, the city must correct all the violations at the 32 sites and perform a similar audit for 125 other city sites and correct those violations, Fowler said.
Cedar Rapids is preparing a 12-month status report for the Justice Department, which will be submitted by the end of August. Fowler said Cedar Rapids is on track with the settlement agreement calendar. The 12-month tasks have not been fully audited yet, she said. The six-month report showed most six-month items had been completed on time, but some incomplete tasks.
The bulk of the compliance budget is devoted to upgrades to bathrooms and modernizing some 4,000 curb ramps, Fowler said, Throughout this year, the Cedar Rapids City Council has approved hundreds of thousands of dollars in curb ramp repairs at virtually every meeting. The first focus has been the northwest quadrant, including 672 curb ramps worth with $2.6 million in design or construction.
Parking projects — how people get from parking spaces to the desired location — have the longest compliance periods in the settlement.
Requirements run the gamut from the physical environment to policy to communications to education.
The city’s Complete Streets policy focuses on mobility, which includes accessible sidewalks. Traffic-signal projects must have ADA accessible signal push buttons. Permits for community festivals — such as the Cedar Rapids Beer Nuts Homebrew Fest on Aug. 20 — require a minimum number of ADA-accessible restrooms.
The recently overhauled city website was designed to be accessible to those with disabilities, and 911 call centers must have the ability to receive and respond to communications from TTY, a device that helps those who are hearing- or speech-impaired use the telephone. Fowler said 1,000 city employees have received ADA-compliance training.
“Will Cedar Rapids be in compliance at the end of this? Absolutely,” Fowler said. “We have the opportunity to be one of the most ADA-compliant communities in the country, and we will be pretty proud of that.”