This month, the walls of bureaucracy that can insulate Governor Charlie Baker from unwanted human contact came tumbling down, and a small group of disability advocates got a chance to meet with him. Even better, he heard them out.
Given recent history, that’s progress.
In October, some of these advocates gathered at the entrance to Baker’s State House office suite to protest an effort by his administration to take autonomy away from the Architectural Access Board, a state board that advocates for equal access for people with disabilities. But they were blocked from entering the reception area. Their protest ultimately led to a decision by the Baker administration to let the AAB choose its own executive director — and to the December meeting with Baker.
“The visual of six advocates, four in wheelchairs, in the governor’s office, having his ear and having him listen to us, is great," said Carol Steinberg, a lawyer who uses a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis, and is a past member of the AAB. But now comes something even harder: getting Baker to support proposed changes to rules and laws governing accessibility that are opposed by business interests, most notably by commercial real estate developers.
According to a spokesman, Baker considered the meeting “productive” and is reviewing the proposed changes. However, according to advocates who attended the meeting, the governor told them of complaints he has heard from the business community about the difficulty of complying with those regulations already in place. “The governor was very candid,” said Paul Spooner, executive director of MetroWest Center for Independent Living. “He wasn’t willing to make a commitment" on any proposed changes to administrative rules or laws.
Under current law, people with disabilities are basically excluded from living or working in certain places — essentially, because they can’t get into them, or make their way around them because of physical obstacles like stairs. Under legislation backed by state Representative Christine Barber (D-Somerville) and state Senator Michael O. Moore (D-Worcester), employers would be required to make employee work areas accessible to people with disabilities. The legislation would also create “accessibility” requirements for former commercial buildings, factories, mills, and schools that are being renovated into residential housing. Barber and the advocates say they are negotiating with the commercial real estate development association known as NAIOP and hope to reach some compromise on the proposed legislation.
The argument against these changes is, of course, about money. Installing elevators or making other accessibility changes comes at a cost. However, so does the failure to do it. As the Disability Law Center points out in a letter supporting the legislation, “Neither the social nor competitive business interests of the Massachusetts economy are well served when the best employees are unable to participate in the regional economy, simply because of a basic lack of access to employee work areas, be that an entry-level worker or the next Stephen Hawking seeking employment at a Kendall Square start-up.”
Any one of us is an accident or diagnosis away from impaired mobility. Every one of us will get older and experience the physical infirmities that go along with it. Rather than seeing people with disabilities as a narrow class that requires expensive help, think of a universe anyone can be called to join, like it or not.
Or, as Steinberg puts it, “We are not ‘the other.' We are not strange people in wheelchairs. We are everyone. Anyone could ski into a tree, have a car accident, have MS, or get old.”
Chris Hoeh, who represents the United Spinal Association, and shattered his spine in a skiing accident, knows just how much chance plays a role in life. As one of the activists who met with Baker, he hopes the governor now understands how much accessibility matters once the course of your life changes forever. “Having a meeting was positive, a huge thing,” said Hoeh.
If Baker gets behind the move to make Massachusetts more accessible to all, that would be even bigger and better news.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.