ADA-compliant infrastructure can be less user friendly than you’d think- lessons from the Bike Walk Summit, by Tom Howard

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Without a doubt, the Americans with Disabilities Act, approved by Congress in 1990, has improved the quality of life for millions of Americans. This groundbreaking piece of civil rights legislation was enacted to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities in the workplace and in public spaces. One of the more noticeable aspects of the law was that public infrastructure has been redesigned to accommodate people who have limited mobility or have vision or hearing impairments.

Thanks to the ADA, curbs at intersections are frequently designed with a gentle slope instead of a steep step-down to ease transit for people who rely on crutches or a wheelchair to get around. But as valuable as such accommodations are for those with limited mobility, they can create headaches for other members of the disabled community.

During last week’s Bike Walk Summit in Bozeman, speaker Liz Ann Kudrna shared slides that show how ramps, carefully engineered curbs and other infrastructure are essential to people like her, who navigate public streets from the seat of a wheelchair. Showing pictures of deep snow berms, cracked pavement and potholes, she said that Bozeman’s snowy winter has created significant challenges for people of limited mobility.

On the other hand, Chris Siller, a certified orientation and mobility specialist from Missoula, demonstrated how ADA-compliant infrastructure can be less user friendly for people who are blind or have limited sight.

Siller, who was born with a vision impairment, uses a white cane to help navigate streets and sidewalks. An intersection designed to accommodate a wheelchair can be a nightmare for a walker who sweeps the sidewalk with a cane, searching for a curb. When encountering a ramped curb at a crosswalk, Siller often has trouble determining where the sidewalk ends and the street begins. And finding the button that operates the crosswalk signal often requires him to pivot and extend his white cane in a wide arc.

After showing numerous slides of crosswalks and intersections that create headaches for people with limited sight, Siller urged engineers to re-think how they design infrastructure so that it’s easy to use by everybody.

The discussion focusing on the ADA was among more than a dozen breakout sessions that were part of the three-day Bike Walk Summit. Connecting the Dots, the theme of the 2018 summit, provided a detailed glimpse of how communities throughout the world are thriving as pedestrian and bicycle travel play an increasingly important role in transportation.