Accessibility issues persist for disabled
Trash barrels blocking the sidewalk. Restaurants handicap-accessible in name only. Store doorways impossible to enter in a wheelchair.
These are the daily obstacles people with disabilities must negotiate, no matter now meticulously they plan. Twenty-five years after the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, navigating Boston can still be a challenge, marked by seemingly small barriers that can range from humiliating to insurmountable.
"I am living in a world that is not built for me," said Jessica Kensky. She and her husband, Patrick Downes, each lost a leg in 2013 in the Marathon bombings, and Kensky later had her other leg amputated. Accompanied by her assistance dog, Rescue, she can now get around on prosthetics, but often uses crutches or a wheelchair.
The couple spoke at a panel discussion at Simmons College last week, part of a course designed to raise students' awareness of what accessibility means to people who have physical limitations. They were joined by Will Lautzenheiser, a filmmaker and comedian who lost his arms and legs to a near-fatal infection but received two arms in a transplant, and Carol Steinberg, a lawyer and member of the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board.
When Lautzenheiser charts the route from his home in Brookline to medical appointments at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, he said, he confronts cars parked across sidewalk ramps or hoses from landscapers straddling the path he must travel in his power wheelchair, making it unpassable for him.
"Days are filled with minor frustrations," said Lautzenheiser. "When you add them up, they are ridiculous. But I don't want to be complacent about them."
Steinberg, who is also president of the board of the Disability Law Center, has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. She has advice for the businesses she questions about accessibility: Don't lie, don't put accessibility at the bottom of the list, and don't use history as an excuse to keep old neighborhoods like Beacon Hill off limits.
"I'm mad all the time, but I try to go everywhere," Steinberg said. "I try to channel the anger into advocacy for change."
The state's accessibility law predated the federal ADA. Still, the speakers said, there is ample room for improvement in Massachusetts.
"We've come so far," Kensky said. "Let's finish it."
Downes believes many people are both unaware of what it means to have a physical disability and unwilling to think about it. And for those without physical handicaps, some of that reluctance may come down to fear.
"Something could happen to us as we walk out of the room tonight that could change our lives forever," he said. "And that's really scary."