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Residents with disabilities urge Pittsburgh to staff and fund ADA compliance programs

Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA
Residents at the town hall meeting on disability rights called for safer crosswalks, more accessible parking spots at city parks and better enforcement of laws to keep sidewalks passable.

Nearly 150 people attended a town hall on Tuesday night, organized by Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, to review issues of concern to the city's disability community.

Residents who attended the town hall in person at the City-County Building, Downtown, or virtually on Zoom spoke on a number of topics, including the need for safer crosswalks, better enforcement of laws to keep sidewalks passable and increased funding for city services offered to people with disabilities through its ADA coordinator position.

Pittsburgh’s ADA coordinator, part of the city’s planning department, is supposed to ensure all residents have an equal opportunity to participate meaningfully in programs and services offered by the city.

But the role became vacant earlier this month when the most recent coordinator, Hillary Roman, left to join the Allegheny County Department of Human Services as a project manager.

Mark Steidl, a board member of Disability Rights Pennsylvania, told Gainey the city must prioritize restaffing and adequately funding its ADA programs.

“The city needs to elevate the ADA office to one of more authority, visibility and centralized access,” said Steidl, who lives with athetoid cerebral palsy and offered comments using an electronic communication device.

City officials said they are working to implement a temporary system to address the absence of the ADA coordinator. Emails sent to the office go to multiple people on staff, including members of the mayor’s office, who will then respond to inquiries.

But several of the residents who gave public comments said the city must also expand the resources offered by the ADA coordinator to better suit the needs of people with a range of disabilities.

Aurelia Carter urged officials to train staff to help people with disabilities navigate complex systems and municipal agencies, such as the city public housing authority.

“I have two adult families with disabilities who want the same things as everyone else in the city — to be able to live on their own,” Carter said. “I had the experience of trying to help them navigate a broken system where problems arise, whether it’s with the Section 8 housing vouchers itself or just seeking out someone to help them.”

Gainey’s budget proposal includes $300,000 for a study that would assess the city’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and its priorities. The capital budget also allocates $150,000 to install ADA-accessible ramps throughout the city.

Several people spoke at the town hall about the need for improvements and additional infrastructure that supports people with disabilities. Many said the city too often sacrifices already accessible spaces for projects that block pathways and limits the mobility of people with disabilities.

“Broken integrated pavement, a lack of tree maintenance and, in many places, a lack of curb cuts altogether are, in essence, signs that say ‘physically abled only,’” said Alisa Grishman, founder of the disability action organization Access Mob Pittsburgh.

Grishman also pointed out that city building codes are not in alignment with the ADA, and that some business owners lack an understanding of their responsibilities under the law. Several others called on the city’s department of licenses, permits and inspections to enforce consequences on businesses that do not comply.

The mayor said he will continue to work to include people with disabilities in his office and other aspects of city hall to address the issues noted Tuesday night.

"I just need everybody to know that we will work at it, but this is something that there's no blueprint [for]," Gainey said to the crowd. "We're coming in and we're establishing a plan as we go."

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.