Montgomery looks to increase accessibility

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When Taylor Wilkins came to Montgomery for his son’s school field trip, what he saw upset him.

Several popular tour destinations were difficult or near impossible to access by wheelchair for one of his son’s classmates. At one point, the student was forced to watch the tour through a door when he couldn’t get inside a building in Old Alabama Town.

The city of Montgomery has said it wants to address disability access issues and put together a comprehensive plan to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. By shifting the focus of the city on issues that have been brought up by advocates and residents with disabilities, the city hopes that it can influence infrastructure plans to create a more welcoming place.

“I thought Montgomery, with its history of civil rights, good and bad, the ADA compliance should be there,” Wilkins said. He compared his advocacy for accessibility to some of the civil rights issues that have already been fought over in Montgomery, highlighting the fact that people with disabilities are a protected class under federal laws and regulations.

“I told him how upset I was,” he said about his son’s classmate’s experience. “It was heartbreaking.”

Because Montgomery is so heavily reliant on tourism, Wilkins said he was shocked to see a lack of accessibility for people with disabilities in destinations where hundreds of classes of students come each year.

Patrick Dunson, city engineer and head of ADA compliance efforts in the city, said that the new efforts by Montgomery, which started a few months ago, are meant to create a long-term plan that will fix problems areas while creating a reference for future infrastructure.

To better reach citizens and create their plan, Montgomery has partnered with Kimley-Horn, a development company that specializes in these projects. Dunson said the process isn’t short, simple or cheap and it will take many years, even a few decades, for the city to be completely overhauled.

Resident Gene Gunter attended a session on Thursday where citizens could raise concerns about what accessibility issues they see the most and point out problem areas. Turnout was light, similar to the response to online survey on the issue.

Gunter, who has spinal issues, said curb cuts, ramps and a lack of sidewalks are some of the most frequent issues he sees in the city. The meeting was a positive for him though, he said, and he was noticeably excited about the opportunities to share ways that he felt the city could improve.

Geron Gadd, legal director for Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, said that at its essence, any type of disability access pushes are to make sure that all citizens have equal abilities to enjoy the different parts of their city.

The accessibility that is required can come in many forms, she said, like streets, sidewalks, public transit and housing. As the city continues to revitalize, Gadd said, it needs to focus on making all areas of the city available to all.

“There are large portions of the city where there are no sidewalks. How do you navigate from sidewalk to street when there are no curb cuts?” she said. “These are some of the issues that have been advocated for in the past. Those are things that can impair people from accessing parts of the community.”

After visiting the city, Wilkins said he has talked to several officials about the issues that he saw, and he plans to continue his advocacy.

“Montgomery, I’ve been in and out for 10 years, the downtown is looking a lot better, but someone should be paying this some attention,” he said, pushing back against the idea that the fixes have to be expensive and take several years to complete.

“We’re talking about a thousand-dollar ramp here. It doesn’t need to be a big thing.”

Republished with the permission of the Associated Press.

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