Duquesne University student Katrina McNally last fall invited her brother and his two friends to spend a weekend in Pittsburgh. His friends use wheelchairs.

Despite advance planning, their trips around town were constrained. They avoided traveling from Duquesne University to Downtown because sidewalks were narrow and obstructed by construction. A visit to the South Side was limited to one location, Fat Head’s Saloon, because many others had steps at the entry. When they ate breakfast at DeLuca’s Diner in the Strip District, McNally’s guests could not use the downstairs bathroom. They had to seek out a restroom elsewhere.

In June, the National ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] Symposium brought dozens of people with disabilities Downtown for four days. When attendees ventured to Market Square, the Duquesne Incline and other tourist sites, they struggled with city sidewalks and at times had to go into the street for access.

Although the city has increased accessibility over the years, barriers remain — and so do opportunities. As the ADA’s 28th anniversary approaches on July 26, the city is poised to chip away at one of the longest-standing and most prevalent accessibility issues—“one-step” entries to neighborhood businesses. City Councilwoman Deb Gross introduced legislation on July 10 to change the city’s building code to require accessible entrances when businesses seek permits for renovations. On July 17, Mayor Bill Peduto proposed allocating $100,000 to a city program that helps businesses remove entrance barriers.

Oakland for All will sponsor a “Ramp Crawl” on Thursday, July 26, in recognition of the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. For more information, visit http://oaklandforall.org/rampcrawl.html.

Richard Meritzer, the city’s ADA coordinator, said the city has made progress since the ADA’s passage in 1990, citing the installation of hundreds of curb ramps and dozens of audible traffic signals at intersections, with many more coming. Sign language interpreters are now common sights at public meetings and events, he said. This year, the city announced the installation of 91 ADA-accessible swings for children of all abilities and six for users with wheelchairs in playgrounds.

Pittsburgh is known nationally for two gems of accessibility: PNC Park, one of the most accessible major league ballparks in the nation, and the Port Authority transit system, which has offered door-to-door, shared-ride transit since 1979.

But are these features enough to make Pittsburgh one of the nation’s most disability-friendly cities?

“I’d give the city six out of 10, pretty good but not perfect,” said Alisa Grishman of Uptown, founder of Access Mob Pittsburgh, an accessibility advocacy group, and member of Peduto’s advisory group for Complete Streets, a program designed to improve streets so they work better for people of all needs. Grishman uses a walker and wheelchair for mobility.

Alisa Grishman, founder of Access Mob Pittsburgh, an accessibility advocacy group, and member of Peduto’s advisory group for Complete Streets chats with Richard Meritzer, the city’s ADA coordinator, before the start of a City of Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Task Force on Disabilities meeting on July 16, 2018. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
Alisa Grishman, founder of Access Mob Pittsburgh, an accessibility advocacy group, and member of Peduto’s advisory group for Complete Streets chats with Richard Meritzer, the city’s ADA coordinator, before the start of a City of Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Task Force on Disabilities meeting on July 16, 2018. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Unlike Denver and Chicago, Pittsburgh has not ranked high on the national lists of disability-friendly cities. A major reason may be the city’s topography and the age of its buildings—both a charm and a bane.

A stroll through Pittsburgh’s business districts illustrates the problem. Many sidewalks are in poor condition or lack a clear path for wheelchairs. The city requires building owners to maintain their sidewalks and keep them clear, but many don’t.

Advocates say another problem lies behind the scenes. Despite the city’s stated agenda for inclusivity, advocates say the city didn’t give enough consideration to disability access in the early planning stages of new initiatives like bicycle paths and bus rapid transit. When accessible parking spaces were removed to clear space for bike lanes in Oakland, advocates protested, saying the city did not account for their needs.

The city has invited a few more people with disabilities to fill vacancies on committees, and since 1994, the city and the county have jointly supported the City of Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Task Force on Disabilities, an advisory panel composed of people with disabilities. The group meets monthly. However, some advocates call for a more robust internal structure to stay on top of access issues.

Laura Drogowski, manager of Critical Communities Initiatives in the mayor’s office, said changes in this vein are happening already. Last year’s formation of the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure “is leading to better communication and action related to requests,” she said. “There’s always room for improvement,” she added, explaining that her position is designed to “to ensure that individuals who may be affected by changes … always have a seat at the table [and] are consulted.”

Will the city step up to address the one-step issue?

The prevalence of one-step entries in older buildings—a frustration for wheelchair users—is one of the city’s longest-standing access problems.

The ADA requires businesses, as places of public accommodation, to remove barriers to accessibility when doing so is readily achievable. By this, it means “easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense,” according to the city’s ADA web pages.

The city cannot enforce the ADA or compel businesses to create accessible entries. Because the ADA is a federal civil rights law, citizens can seek enforcement by filing complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice. This is the only method by which the ADA is enforced.

Disability rights advocates and the city have tried to tackle the one-step issue for years.  Advocates’ most recent suggestion focuses on something the city may be able to address––its issuing of building permits that allow steps to remain at the entrances of renovated businesses.

Businesses seeking city permits for renovation are required to commit a minimum of 20 percent of renovation costs to accessibility modifications. The Pennsylvania Uniform Construction Code [UCC], which the city is required to follow, does not prioritize particular accessibility improvements—instead, building owners are free to decide which improvements they will make.

If City Council passes legislation to require businesses to prioritize a “zero-step” public entrance as part of renovation, the state Department of Labor and Industry would have to approve the change. Councilwoman Gross has shared the proposed legislation with the state and has called for a public hearing that she expects to be held in September, her office confirmed.

Mayor Peduto is “100 percent supportive” of prioritizing accessible entry during renovation, Drogowski said. She added that the mayor plans to ask City Council on July 24 to consider a resolution that urges the Department of Labor and Industry to consider adopting this standard in the state Uniform Construction Code.

It is uncertain if the state will approve the city’s appeal to change its building code.

Theresa Elliott, spokesperson for the state Department of Labor and Industry, wrote in an email that the agency does not have the authority to change the accessibility provisions within the UCC and that building owners are solely responsible for complying with any additional ADA requirements beyond what the UCC requires. In other words, the state may argue that cities don’t have the authority to dictate how business owners go about ADA improvements and which improvements they should prioritize.

The city council resolution takes a different position, asserting that municipalities have the power to introduce standards that go above and beyond the state code. Furthermore, the amendment attempts to address the city’s broader responsibility under the ADA to ensure that its policies, practices and procedures do not discriminate against people with disabilities. The U.S. Department of Justice could determine that it is discrimination to allow businesses to retain entrance barriers during renovation.

It’s important for the city to seek the modification to its building code, even if it puts it “in a dance with the state,” according to Paul O’Hanlon, co-chair of the City of Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Task Force on Disabilities and a wheelchair user. Under the current building code, the city approves business renovations that may include accessible bathrooms and other interior ADA improvements while retaining the obvious barrier of a step at the entrance.

Paul O’Hanlon, co-chair of the City of Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Task Force on Disabilities, speaks during a task force meeting July 16, 2018. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

After business owners complete their renovations, they may find themselves facing ADA complaints from citizens about these inaccessible entries. These complaints, such as the one against Sushi Fuku in Oakland, sometimes take business owners by surprise because they believe they have met the ADA requirements in their building permits.

“Business owners are getting blindsided,” said Joan Stein, an ADA consultant who has worked on accessibility at PNC Park, PPG Arena and other venues.

DJ Stemmler, co-founder of Oakland for All, a project that convenes the community to address accessibility issues, has filed complaints against 15 businesses with inaccessible entries.

Stemmler, a wheelchair user, also runs the Accessible Pittsburgh Facebook page. She said that since 2013, Oakland for All has identified more than 300 examples of buildings in Oakland and other neighborhoods that were approved for building permits and do not have accessible entries.

DJ Stemmler poses for a photo outside Noodle House in Oakland in November 2017. Stemmler said she ate in the restaurant the first day after the accessible ramp was installed. (Photo by John Hamilton / PublicSource)

The city has tried a few methods to ameliorate the one-step problem over the past few years.

In 2011, the city established the One Step Project to simplify the renovation permit process for business owners who intend to remove their steps.The city publicizes information about removing entry barriers, including funding resources.

Through the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, the Oakland Business Improvement District offers matching grants of up to $7,500 to eliminate barriers at storefront entrances.

In the past four years, Meritzer’s office has surveyed every neighborhood business district for accessibility barriers at entrances. He said his office has mailed hundreds of letters to business owners, stating they are out of compliance with the ADA and warning they could be sued. The letters offer the the city’s assistance in getting rid of the step.

“Not many [have responded],” Meritzer said. “The letter is designed to be informative, but not necessarily threatening, because we can’t enforce it.”

“Unfortunately, suing is the only thing that gets attention,” Stein said.

The sidewalk problem

A few days after the National ADA Symposium that took place on June 17-20, Jim de Jong, executive director of the Great Plains ADA Center, said conference-goers were impressed with Pittsburgh, but also encountered accessibility shortcomings. Of the nearly 1,000 attendees, more than 50 use wheelchairs and even more have other types of disabilities.

“Many people were taken by the beauty of the city,” he said. “Pittsburgh people are unbelievably welcoming and friendly.” Personnel who provided service at the airport were “fabulous.” Customer service at PNC Park for people with disabilities “exceeded any [expectations we] have had.”

But trips to Market Square revealed sidewalks in bad condition, with some curb ramps “dangerously steep” or “inaccurately located.”

A few weeks before the symposium, Chris Watts, vice president of mobility for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership [PDP], joined the city’s ADA coordinator for a walking tour to check things out. They found access problems in Market Square (“a high-infraction area,” Watts said) and other locations: sandwich boards, outdoor dining and planters infringing on the sidewalk right-of-way, and places where pedestrians and wheelchairs had to leave the sidewalk and go into the street.

Sidewalk accessibility is a high priority for the PDP, Watts said. The group has begun an effort with the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure to remind sidewalk café owners in Market Square of their responsibility to maintain 5 feet of clear space on sidewalks and “inform them that enforcement is coming.”

Watts said the city has promised it will enforce ordinances regarding obstructions on sidewalks. Meritzer told PublicSource that the city is making a major push to inform property owners about their sidewalk responsibilities.

Enforcement of sidewalk maintenance ordinances is serious business: In 2015, Los Angeles settled a $1.4 billion class-action lawsuit regarding the condition of sidewalks for wheelchair users.

Looking ahead

Despite its progressive agenda for inclusivity, some advocates say a culture of accessibility has yet to take hold in Pittsburgh.

People with disabilities need to be “a part of the fabric of what the city does,” Stemmler said. “If not, we’re not really a community.”

Timeliness is also important, said advocate Alisa Grishman. As a new member of city committees, she said she has noticed that progress toward access solutions is slow. For instance, she said the issue of how the proposed bus rapid transit route would allow paratransit vehicles to get to the curb “took a year of saying it over and over to get to a solution.”

“I’d give the city six out of 10, pretty good but not perfect,” says Alisa Grishman, founder of Access Mob Pittsburgh, an accessibility advocacy group, and member of Peduto’s advisory group for Complete Streets. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The city also needs to be more aware of missed opportunities for access solutions, O’Hanlon added. He lamented that the first phase of the Penn Avenue street reconstruction project in Garfield (a partnership of the city and state) offered to remove entry steps for free while replacing sidewalks, but gave business owners the option to keep their steps.

“I can’t fathom why they’d give business owners the opportunity to violate federal law,” he said.

Mary Hartley, a local disability rights advocate, urged the city to consider whether the ADA coordinator position is spread too thin. The ADA requires cities with more than 50 employees to have a compliance officer. Meritzer was named as compliance officer in 2003, and his duties expanded in 2008 when his title was changed to ADA coordinator.

Hartley credits Meritzer with creating a process for community input and developing programs to effect change, but suggests that the way the position is defined does not allow substantive input into policy or a budget to make things happen.

Other cities like New York, Philadelphia and Chicago employ multiple ADA experts and put these experts in positions of greater power, such as deputy mayor. Elevating the position gives the ADA officer the authority to review policy and practice in every department and oversee modernization, Hartley said.

Drogowski said that Meritzer, who plans to retire by the end of the year, is reviewing the roles that ADA coordinators perform in other cities and making recommendations about how the position might evolve.

Some advocates also call for updates to the 24-year-old city-county task force on disabilities.

Drogowski stated that because it is a joint task force with the county, “the mayor and county executive would need to decide together” on any changes, “with strong advising from the participants.”

So what would it take for Pittsburgh to become one of the nation’s most disability-friendly cities? In addition to physical accessibility, such designations look at housing, health care, education and other factors.

Drogowski said that although it would be nice for the city to be recognized for its accessibility from the outside, it’s more important “to take the tone from the advocates who live here as to what our priorities should be.”

“Ultimately,” she said, “we want to meet the immediate needs and concerns of the community that lives here.”

Freelance journalist Tina Calabro writes about disability issueas. She can be reached at tina.calabro@verizon.net.

This story was fact-checked by Oliver Morrison.

Do you feel more informed?

Help us inform people in the Pittsburgh region with more stories like this — support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation.